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The Philippe de Montebello Years: Onésipe Aguado's Woman Seen from the Back

Philippe de Montebello speaks with curator Malcolm Daniel about Onésipe Aguado's mysterious photograph Woman Seen from the Back, which was acquired by the Museum as part of the remarkable Gilman Collection. Recorded on the occasion of The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, on view from October 24, 2008, through February 1, 2009.


Helen Evans: Hear Metropolitan Museum of Art director, Philippe de Montebello, and curator Malcolm Daniel discuss Onésipe Aguado's photograph Woman Seen from the Back. Their conversation was recorded in conjunction with the exhibition The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions.

Philippe de Montebello: I am with Malcolm Daniel, who is the curator in charge of the Department of Photographs, and we are standing in front of a single image: a very evocative, poetic, mysterious picture of the back of a woman. And there are multiple agendas here. The first is that we are looking at a representative—or very high-level example—of a huge collection of photographs, some several thousand images that we acquired recently; one of the most important and certainly transformative purchases in any curatorial department in this institution.

But at the same time, we're also looking at a single work of art and concentrating on its effect on us. Malcolm, if you would say a word first about the Gilman Collection and its acquisition, and then we'll talk a little bit about this singular image.

Malcolm Daniel: Sure. The Gilman Collection, which we acquired in 2005, was assembled over the course of about two decades, from 1977 to 1997, by Howard Gilman, the chairman of Gilman Paper Company, and his curator, Pierre Apraxine.

They collected photographs during a period when few others were willing to believe in and pay what was necessary to collect the very best of photography from the first century of the medium, from 1839 to 1939. It's a period of photography that was poorly represented in the Met's collection, and this offered us the chance to make a single acquisition that would place us in the top ranks of photography collections worldwide.

In fact, over the period of the 1990s, we worked closely with them. Our acquisitions were often made with the recognition of what was already in the Gilman Collection, and their acquisitions were made with the knowledge of what we had.

Philippe de Montebello: So, in a sense, when we were collecting photography directly, were we doing it in function of what we knew Howard Gilman was collecting, and all of this of course was in the fervent and fervid expectation that that collection would come to the Met?

Malcolm Daniel: That's correct. Unfortunately it didn't play out quite as simply as we expected. We hoped that it would be a gift or a bequest. But when Howard Gilman died in January of 1998, we were somewhat surprised and disappointed to find that it was not in his will that the collection should come to us. And we spent the next seven years, as you know well, negotiating with the foundation that was the chief beneficiary of Howard's estate to bring the collection here. And that involved a partial gift from the foundation, but a major purchase, which required the rallying of all of our supporters and the trustees to make this singular acquisition.

Philippe de Montebello: Now, in all fairness to the foundation and to Howard Gilman and his friends, I think we should say that one of the reasons why the process of the acquisition and the price was so high is that at precisely the moment at which we were negotiating, there was a reversal of fortune in paper companies, and particularly that company, and they were not in a position—much as many of the members of the board wanted—to give us the collection.

This particular image—tell us little bit about it, because the photographer, Aguado, is not a household name. I suspect even in the field of photography it isn't. And we can all certainly feel the affect of the mystery of the figure turning away from us, the way the profil perdu, the lost profile, in works of Watteau and others compel us to kind of a rapt attention.

But, a question I have, which is of a slightly philosophical nature, is, to a certain extent, when we placed this image on the cover of the catalogue of the first major exhibition mounted before the acquisition of the Gilman Collection, did we not in a certain sense create its celebrity?

To what extent does a museum have an enormous responsibility and effect, in the end, on our perception of works of art through what it chooses to do, especially major institutions such as this one?

Malcolm Daniel: I think that's absolutely the case, and I think it's part of our mission, is to bring photographs, which are not yet in the canon, but which have an extraordinary presence and extraordinary power or mystery to them, and to bring those before the public, and not to rely only on the great names, the iconic works, which were also richly represented in the Gilman Collection.

Here was something that was absolutely unknown. Maybe a few photo historians would have known it. Certainly the public did not know it. The public would not know the name Onésipe Aguado. Most photo historians wouldn't.

And yet, now that this has been celebrated in our 1993 exhibition The Waking Dream, I think we see it as one of the most beautiful, most enigmatic of nineteenth-century portraits, precisely because of that sense of mystery; what's not revealed. Usually photographs attract us because of the details that they show, the stories that they tell. Here it's what's withheld that is so intriguing.

Philippe de Montebello: Mm-hmm. And the fact that—fifteen years after the exhibition of The Waking Dream, of which this was the cover—this has lasted and established itself now in the canon of the history of photography is a confirmation that the authority of an institution, as opposed to authoritarianism, is something that is highly valuable, that the public should seek, and that one should continue to exercise, lest we fail in the fundamentals of our mission. Is that not the case?

Malcolm Daniel: Right. I think one of the things that is most exciting for me as a curator of photographs, and I hope for the public, is that there's so much still to discover in our field. I think it would be shocking indeed if one discovered a new, French, nineteenth-century painter of supreme quality who had gone until now without celebration or recognition. By contrast, with photography, there are still great figures and great individual works to be discovered, and there are treasures in the Gilman Collection that we have been and will continue to present to the public and hope that they'll have the same sense of discovery that we have.

Philippe de Montebello: So on that note, I would say to you listening, "Come often." There will be many familiar sights and many a discovery. Thank you, Malcolm, for your insights, and do enjoy the lost gaze of this lady.

Helen Evans: This recorded conversation was produced in conjunction with The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions, on view at the Met through February 1, 2009. The exhibition was organized in tribute to Philippe de Montebello's thirty-one years as director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Come to the Museum to take an audio tour of the galleries with many of the Met's curators.

This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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