Author: John Pope-Hennessey
Year of Publication: 1991
Library of Congress Call Number: N7483.P66A3
I apologize for the long silence in this space! (And then again, this is only for my own amusement, so maybe I don’t apologize after all. BUT, if anyone was disappointed, I’m sorry about that part.) It isn’t that I haven’t been reading, and it isn’t even that I haven’t been writing, but I’ve been reading many short articles, which weren’t exactly bloggable, and I’ve been writing many professional things, which is rewarding but made things go a little dead here. But let’s see if I can get a blog or two in here.
But this book is an unusual choice for me. Learning to Look is a memoir by John Pope-Hennessey, a distinguished museum curator who has at different times directed the Victoria and Albert, the Met, and many other well-known museums. I like art—I’m particularly fond of Goya—but I’m certainly not knowledgeable about it. I’m also generally verbally, not visually, oriented, which means I’m the kind of person who goes to museums and reads all the plaques while finding all the visual materials a bit mysterious. So, it’s a little surprising that I chose to read this at all. Basically, I am developing a class, separate from the one I’ve discussed before in this space, in which it would help me to have some way to talk about art a little and help my students to talk about art. It isn’t the main focus of the class, but I want them to be able to think about several different media. A colleague is using this book for one part of his class which asks students to “read” paintings, and I hoped that it would serve a similar function for me.
I’m still looking for a book that did what I hoped this book would do. This is really more of a memoir written from the perspective of someone knowledgeable and experienced in the field of art history and curatorship. Of course, that is exactly what Pope-Hennessey intended to write, so, let’s look at it from that perspective.
Pope-Hennessey was born in Great Britain in the early part of the twentieth century into a notable family; he had the privilege of a culturally rich upbringing and an excellent education. He writes of his family, his educational decisions, his trips through Europe at a young age when he was trying to learn more about art and worrying about the war, and then his experiences as a curator in several respected institutions. His is obviously a very privileged life, but it is of course interesting to see how these things are managed. In the early part of the book, I was very conscious of his obvious pride in the accomplishments of his parents, especially his mother, and his awareness of the degree of notability which he’s achieved. This seemed a bit self-aggrandizing to me, but I am particularly sensitive to the awkwardness of self-promotion and this probably isn’t Pope-Hennessey’s fault. I did find, however, that my ignorance of art history and criticism was a barrier to my enjoyment of the early parts of the book. He cites particular paintings and gives anecdotes about their histories, or occasionally notes how lucky he was to buy a notable painting at a low price before its value was widely appreciated. It’s entirely likely that I’ve seen paintings by some of the artists he mentioned, but I do not recognize them by name; without this knowledge, I can get the general sense of what he is implying, but the greater meaning of it isn’t available to me (and meaningless examples render the text a bit dry). He also spends a great deal of time on his encounters with famous art historians and critics. Later in the book, he goes on to give more detail, and it’s revealing about what he thinks makes a good critic, but early on, my inability to recognize the individuals he mentioned made it feel like mere name-dropping. So in those ways, I simply wasn’t the right person to read this book.
This isn’t to say that the book was devoid of interest, though. The parts that were most interesting to me were the ones which discuss the administration of museums as institutions. Pope-Hennessey discusses his relations with the boards of trustees, hinting that such boards are often assumed to be antagonistic but that in many cases they have more to contribute than their popular reputation would suggest. He gives an account of his reorganization of some of the museums that he directed, considers the difference between curatorships and directorships, lets the reader into some of the intricacies involved in buying works of art, and navigates the philosophical disputes about the purpose of museums, acknowledging the importance of their educational function while still believing that art museums can encourage scholarship. Every once in a while there was a mention of libraries, usually to the effect that while libraries and museums are similar institutions in some ways, there is often some tension between them. This was a bit juicy to me, well, for professional reasons. These administrative details were quite interesting to me as a librarian; I have no administrative responsibilities and don’t want any, either, but I do have an interest in understanding how things are run and this was a candid behind the scenes look. Indeed, sometimes Pope-Hennessey discussed his colleagues and even his family members in ways that I found a little too harsh; I’ve internalized some norms about criticizing colleagues in public. However, as it turns out, many of these people have died, and I’m guessing that the most important professional rivalry discussed is public in any case. I was particularly surprised to read the way he discusses his brother, but this too became less surprising after I read of his death (though I noted, also, that the author doesn’t want to get too personal with his own feelings!)
Pope-Hennessey has a clear and engaging writing style and is deeply knowledgeable about his subject matter. There were two points at which I was able to connect his experience to my own: first, visiting the Prado and being overwhelmed by the Goya paintings, even to the exclusion of the other art there, and second, living in New York and feeling the need for natural beauty. These were points of strong enough connection that I feel inclined to trust him in other matters as well, given, again, my ignorance. In any case, I’d recommend the book to anyone to whom this sounds at all interesting. For myself, however, I’m pleased to move on to something more my speed (which may or may not happen next).