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“I’m Still Here” (despite buyouts): My Q&A with Keith Christiansen at the Met’s “Valentin de Boulogne”

By some strange curatorial telepathy, the Metropolitan Museum’s justly acclaimed Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio (to Jan. 16) bears a title closely resembling that of a major show at another world-class museum: Less than a week after the Met’s show opened, the National Gallery, London, unveiled Beyond Caravaggio, which, from its description, covers similar ground to the great Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome that I saw (and wrote about) five years ago at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Entrance to the National Gallery of Canada, August, 2011

Entrance to the National Gallery of Canada in August, 2011

Less ambitiously than the earlier show, London’s National Gallery zeros in on works drawn from nearby collections (Great Britain and Ireland).

Drawn from international lenders, the Met’s insertion of the celebrated Caravaggio in the title of its exhibition seems calculated to stimulate interest in his lesser-known follower (a common attention-grabbing strategy). The show starts with three works by other Caravaggesques but then zeroes in on Valentin.

As you can see from the images below, Caravaggio’s penchant for dramatic lighting and complex composition influenced the French-born Baroque artist. But the former’s subjects, with livelier personalities and more powerful presence, are more riveting. By contrast, Valentin’s introspective protagonists are mostly sunk in a funk. Christiansen sees that inward quality as evidence of the artist’s psychological insight. But their dull expressions make it hard to discern what they’re thinking.

This could be the most joyless concert you will ever see:

"Concert with a Bas-Relief," ca. 1624-26, Musée de Louvre

“Concert with a Bas-Relief,” ca. 1624-26, Musée de Louvre

Even the Met collection’s lone contribution to the show, its “Lute Player,” depicts “a melancholic soldier of fortune singing, presumably, a madrigal about unrequited love,” as the label tells us:

"The Lute Player," 1625-26, Metropolitan Museum

“The Lute Player,” 1625-26, Metropolitan Museum

That’s not to say Valentin can’t capture dynamic action, as in this tour de force, where the objects of Christ’s wrath seem to be tumbling out of the picture:

"Christ Driving the Merchants from the Temple," ca. 1618-22, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

“Christ Driving the Merchants from the Temple,” ca. 1618-22, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

In his preface to the show’s excellent catalogue, Met director Tom Campbell argues that Valentin’s relative obscurity in recent times, when compared to his French contemporary, Georges de La Tour, is owed to the latter’s greater appeal to “a modernist taste.”

The show’s predominantly brooding mood may match the angst of the Met’s curators in their institution’s Age of Anxiety. Notwithstanding the public’s interest in knowing who is currently on staff, the museum has refused to release the names of the 57 employees who accepted voluntary buyouts as part of the museum’s cost-cutting initiative. I wonder if it’s true, as reported, that the great Joan Aruz, curator in charge of the Met’s department devoted to art of the ancient Near East (a region where cultural patrimony is being sadly endangered by terrorism) has left the building. Strangely, her department seems to have been omitted from the museum’s staff webpage.

Under these circumstances, I was delighted to see Keith Christiansen, the Met’s veteran chairman of European paintings, standing tall at the press preview. He was not only beaming with well earned pride for his latest achievement (co-organized with the Louvre), but also brimming with ideas for future exhibitions.

Keith Christiansen, TK at the Metropolitan Museum

Keith Christiansen, introducing the the Valentin show at the Metropolitan Museum

After most of the scribe tribe had gone, a few straggling critics and journalists stayed to chat with Keith about his show and his future. Below are excerpts from that conversation:

CHRISTIANSEN: I’ve enjoyed support of the museum’s director, Tom Campbell, who said this is not necessarily a subject that somebody interested in catching the public’s attention would do, but “we understand it’s an exhibition we should do.”

If you do an exhibition on Monet, you know your public. From the start, I had not realized how little known Valentin was. You become really an apologist, a protagonist. One of the great pleasures in mounting this exhibition is everybody who has worked on it, from the packers to our riggers who lift all the heavy weights, said, “Keith, this is really a fabulous show!” I thought this was a good sign, because the pictures do speak for themselves.

ROSENBAUM: Was the execution [of the show] affected by the budget cuts in any way?

CHRISTIANSEN: Absolutely not. For an artist who has a corpus of 60 pictures, we have 45. People said, “What pictures couldn’t you get that you would have liked?” I said, “There were four.” Two are from Russia, which we can’t get because of the embargo. [They are in the version of the show that will travel to the Louvre in February.] There was one that belongs to a family in Rome and they could not lend it because it would have been notified and they did not want their picture to be notified.

The fourth picture, which is glorious, in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, is of a mythological subject. It has been on their no-loan list forever: It has never been lent and will never be lent.

[Here’s one of the show’s two rarely loaned pictures that Louis XIV chose to decorate his chamber at Versailles, where they still customarily reside]:

"Saint Matthew," ca. 1624-26, Chateau d Versailles

“Saint Matthew,” ca. 1624-26, Chateaus de Versailles et de Trianon

CHRISTIANSEN: I’m an early Renaissance person: That’s where I came in. This museum has forced me to stretch myself and it’s a great privilege to be forced to work outside your comfort zone. The 17th century has become a second home for me. But it’s always crucial to know that I’m a generalist. In doing an exhibition like this, I needed somebody who had in-depth knowledge and a curator at the Louvre fingered Annick Lemoine. She was going to write a book on Valentin, so I got to work with someone who was deeply involved in this moment.

ROSENBAUM: Is there a future project that you’re thinking about?

CHRISTIANSEN: I have two that I’ve wanted to do: One of them I’ve been advocating for a number of years and it’s been rejected by everybody. I don’t give up, but I don’t even know how I would do it because the subject is really complex. I’d have to work with a literary historian.

You start with pictures that you’ve gotten intrigued by and then you start asking, “What do we know about these? What do we know about the people who owned these? What do we know about how people thought about these?” And by that time, you’re completely hooked.

ROSENBAUM: Since you’re talking about two new projects, I take it that you have no interest in taking a buyout. You’re going to be here and working.

CHRISTIANSEN: The buyout period is over and I’m still here. I’m getting on [in years], but I love my work. When you’re able to do something like this, that’s the total reward.

The fantastic thing about working at the Met is you are in a kind of center. I have contacts with all my colleagues in museums throughout Europe as well as in America. These are close friends. It’s better than being on a [university] faculty. You don’t have to sit down with them every day at a meeting to discuss budgets…

…and you also get to look great artists in the eye. Below are two Valentins that Christiansen believes to be self-portraits:

“St. John the Baptist,” ca. 1613-14, private collection

Almost 20 years later, the artist reappears as Samson, not savoring his triumph over the Philistines, but musing on “his victory…and the Philistine woman he has loved and lost,” the label’s text hypothesizes. In the show’s catalogue, Christiansen calls this “unquestionably one of Valentin’s masterpieces, astonishing in its presentation of the hero not as some fictional strong man but as a real person, captured in an uncommon moment of reflection”:

"Samson," 1631, Cleveland Museum

“Samson,” 1631, Cleveland Museum

Valentin died the year after completing his “Samson” self-portrait, after “a night of tavern hopping, drinking and smoking,” as Christiansen writes in the catalogue.

The curator’s misgivings (expressed at the beginning of the Q&A) that this show might fall short “in catching the public’s attention” seem supported by the Met’s failure to include it as one of the five exhibitions featured in consecutive images flashing across its homepageKerry James Marshall, Max Beckmann, Cornelia Parker, Diane Arbus, “Jerusalem.”

Valentin is indisputably a fine artist. But suggesting that he has gone “Beyond Caravaggio” is a bit of a stretch. He lacks the brio and audaciousness of his predecessor which, to me, makes him less compelling.

an ArtsJournal blog