An Interview with Jennifer Montagu

Jennifer Montagu was in Paris during the Salon du Dessin, where she participated to a colloquium about the drawings of sculptors (see our interview with Guilhem Scherf). We took advantage of this occasion to meet and interview her about her former and recent works. This great british art historian, who studied under Gombrich, is always very active.

local/cache-vignettes/L218xH290/Montagu-42871.jpgYou work mostly on Roman Baroque sculpture and Charles Le Brun. Why these two subjects ?

I always wanted to work on sculpture. I never had any sense of colour. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a sculptor but I understood right away that I could never do that. But studying sculpture in England meant going to the Courtauld. That was rather difficult as I was a Political Science student at Oxford. Now, to enter the Courtauld you had to spend a year doing undergraduate work, regurgitating what other people had said ;this prospect bored me, I wanted to do research. At that time, the Slade Professor was Gombrich. Before him, it was Kenneth Clark. Apart from the Professor’s weekly lecture, he had a meeting with interested students. With Clark, we would drink sherry and talk. Gombrich asked for more work. He held a kind of seminar every week and I was the only one there who wasn’t an art student ; so I wasn’t expected to do any work. The others, who should have produced papers, drifted away, leaving just me to talk with Gombrich. He explained to me that facial expression had a history, and he advised me to work on Le Brun’s lecture on the subject. This became my dissertation. That was how I first became interested in Le Brun. And yet, before that, I had spent time in France with a family to learn French and had found Versailles very boring. The Drawings Cabinet was much more pleasant than the Bibliothèque Nationale and I spent all of my afternoons looking at drawings while I prepared my dissertation in Paris. At the Louvre I made a rough draft for a drawing catalogue for Le Brun, but it remained for Lydia Beauvais to produce the real thing.

You are still working on Le Brun.

I’ve more or less dropped Le Brun, but if someone asks me for something, I do it (for example, recently, the small catalogue for the exhibition at Versailles or the preface to Bénédicte Gady’s book which is coming out soon). If I find anything, I publish it. I am very unfaithful to my artists but I always keep them as friends.

You like to rediscover artists who have been more or less forgotten.

Yes, I like lesser-known artists, those who raise interesting problems, more so than the famous or popular ones. I am the sole survivor and founder of the Society of the Enemies of Bernini, which I founded with Anthony Blunt. He was working on Borromini and I on Algardi, Bernini’s rivals. And he was working on the Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini’s visit to France by Chantelou where the sculptor is described as being very disagreable. I told Michael Lavin ; he thought I was being serious…But in a certain way I am. I worked on Algardi for a long time explaining to everyone that he was not Bernini ; today I’m working on Maini and explain he was not Pietro Bracci. The English don’t really like the Italian 18th century. It was a great pity for instance that there were such few visitors to the Batoni exhibition when it was in fact very beautiful. The English think that he painted boring portraits of stupid English grand tourists. They’re not really interested in the Italian 18th century. A few years ago there was a Boucher exhibition at the Wallace and I read some ridiculous comments about it. The English don’t understand Rococo art.

And yet there are many English 18th century sculptors who made tombs that are almost Baroque, which recall Italy, for instance in Saint Paul’s Cathedral or in Westminster Abbey.

Many of the sculptors were of Dutch origin and they looked to France more than to Italy for inspiration. Italy is much more Catholic, making it less attractive to them.

Can you tell us something about Maini ?

For me he is a very original artist, much more so than better known artists of the time such as Pietro Bracci or Filippo della Valle. He had a very personal way of working. He was less of a naturalist, less academic ; his draperies are sometimes quite fanciful. He has very particular drawing habits, the way he does the eyes, the hair. There are about 150 drawings by him. Maini was not yet 20 when he arrived in Rome and worked there. He sent sculptures to Portugal and also to England but he always stayed in Rome. The furthest he seems to have gone was to to Civito Castellano which is right next to Rome. His masterpieces are the Corsini Chapel in Saint John Lateran where he did the figure of Pope Clement XII, and his uncle. He also sculpted statues for the founders of two orders for the nave of Saint Peter’s in Rome. I talked about him in Gold, Silver and Bronze.

The subject for the colloquium at the Salon du Dessin was “sculptors’ drawings”. Do you think that there is something specific about a sculptor’s drawing ?

Yes and no : if a drawing resembles a sculpture, very often it is not a drawing by a sculptor. Most sculptors have an idea of how a piece will look three dimensionally. They don’t need to reproduce it in a drawing. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, for example Bouchardon who did very accomplished drawings…

You are also very interested in Decorative Arts.

Yes, very much so, especially silversmith’s work. I am finishing a monographic study on a 17th century Roman silversmith, Antonio Arrighi, for whom I found his account books. This is extremely rare ; account books for these artists are unheard of. I worked on Alessandro Algardi, now I’m on Antonio Arrighi : that’s two artists with the initials A.A.!

You are not preparing a monograph on Maini ?

It depends. Anne-Lise Desmas is preparing a dissertation on the sculptors of this period ; I have to wait and see if she says everything about him. It is hard to write a monograph on an artist that is so generally unfamiliar. If I do write it, it should be something like Maini and 18th century Sculpture.

I have always been struck by 18th century Roman tombs and how they are still so close to 17th century Baroque ones…

There is a word that a lot of people don’t like but that I appreciate : the barocchetto. During the 18th century in Rome there was in fact a Baroque style that was lighter, more feminine, more graceful but which did not reach Rococo.

What are your latest projects ?

Right now I am working on the Bernini exhibition for the Getty : Bernini and the Origins of the Portrait in Baroque Rome. Earlier, I did an exhibition last year on Roman silversmith work in the Marches, in Urbino. It was a very beautiful exhibition and I can say so as it was my colleague Gabriele Barucca who was in charge. He drove me around the churches in the Marches to find the work. Many people don’t know that the French destroyed almost all of the silver in Italy. Napoleon had asked the Pope to pay a large sum of money. To do so, almost all of the silver in the Papal States was melted down. Since the Marche region was a bit further away, more objects survived there. We had a very good designer ; it was quite beautiful. But there was almost no advertising. We even had a hard time publishing the catalogue.

A concluding thought ?

I am lucky in that I never followed a course on art history, so I never worried about what I was supposed to do. I was always able to do whatever I wanted. The expression of the passions goes far beyond art history ; it is also psychology. In thinking about my career as an art historian, I realize that I’m still interested in the same thing as when I started : the idea of the workshop, no one knew what it was about. I always wanted to find out how artists worked, what the relationship between the fine arts and the minor arts was – terms I don’t like. All of that interested me before and still does now.

Interviewed by Didier Rykner

Didier Rykner, vendredi 16 mai 2008

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