Death of Sir Michael Levey


17/1/09 – Obituary – Born in 1927 of parents who had met during World War I and made an improbable marriage, his father was an Irish Catholic and his mother a depressive English agnostic, Michael Levey passed away last 28 December at the end of a palpitating, picturesque life, often punctuated by bold and contradictory moves, both mystical and highly personal. As only English art historians know how, he was both an erudite scholar, highly respected by his peers, and the author of widely read books of vulgarization with such clarity as to ensure popular success.

He was 24 when he joined the National Gallery in 1951 as deputy-curator. His mentors were Cecil Gould, Martin Davies and Anthony Blunt. At that time, books with numerous colour reproductions were just beginning to appear at affordable prices. Levey wrote two major works which were to be translated in several languages and enjoy countless editions : Painting in Eighteenth century Venice for Phaidon Press, A Concise History of Painting : From Giotto to Cezanne for Thames & Hudson, both considered classics today. In just one paragraph, the author manages to evoke a canvas or a painter in a few adjectives and relate them to their corresponding historical, geographical, artistic or literary references. To give only one example : the acrobat scenes in Gian Domenico Tiepolo in his words prefigure Goya, are compared to Picasso and replaced in their context : “The father and son offer really two aspects of their age : the greatest heights of grand painting and genre painting in its most amusing and charming aspects. At the very end of the century, Mozart brought these two worlds together in The Magic Flute, and whereas Tamino and Panina might have been created by Tiepolo the Elder, Papageno was a character by Domenico”.

A professor at the University of Cambridge in 1963/64, a brilliant lecturer, Michael Levey wrote on the 18th century (Rococo to Revolution. Major Trends in Eighteenth-century Painting, 1966). This would be followed by catalogues, those for the Italian painting collections at the National Gallery or the Queen’s Collection, as well as many others for temporary exhibitions. His intellectual curiosity naturally led him into fields outside the world of painting : The World of Ottoman Art (1976) and a book on Mozart (1971). In 1967, he received the Hawthornden literary prize for his work, Early Renaissance and he entered the British Academy in 1983. After being appointed director of the National Gallery in 1973, he transformed the museum thanks to the annexation of the Sainsbury wing, firmly opposed by Margaret Thatcher’s government. He also created a pedagogical program. His choices of hang and colour selections for the rooms were often found to be disconcerting. And yet, twenty years later, the museum’s itinerary sets a universal example. More than elsewhere, the museum-goer feels the passion for painting which instills a sense to the visit. The Art Tribune has, on more than one occasion, underlined the importance of entrusting gallery decoration to upholsterers, rather than to architects whose main goal is self-enhancement often at the cost of the art works on display.
Under his management, 52 paintings of outstanding quality were acquired, from Christ’s Farewell to His Mother by Altdorfer to the Saint Lazare Station by Monet, from Samson and Delilah by Rubens to the Portrait of Jacobus Blauw by David, even though, Levey always said coyingly that his favorite purchase was Still Life with Oranges and Nuts by Melendez. In 1985, he stepped down as director of the museum to take care of his wife, gravely ill. Nonetheless, he continued to publish, notably monographs on Giambattista Tiepolo (1986) and Thomas Lawrence (2003).

Version française


Michel de Piles, samedi 17 janvier 2009



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