Exhibitionship

Andre Malraux's decision to send the VENUS DE MILO to Japan as an inducement for the Olympic Games and Pope John's earlier offer to have Michelangelo's PIETA travel to New York for the World's Fair have prompted this expostulation by ERNST H. GOMBRICH, director of the Warburg Institute in London and the author of ART AND ILLUSION

Above all, of course, we must rally to protect the works of art that can still be found where they grew, in the place and setting for which they were created. How rewarding it is to make the pilgrimage to the little chapel of the cemetery of Monterchi where Piero della Francesca's majestic Madonna del Parto has looked down on the worshipers for five hundred years. How grateful we must be to see Titian's Assumption of the Virgin again on the high altar of the Frari in Venice for which it was painted and which therefore enhances its meaning and its splendor.

How wonderful it is that there still are the old churches and old palaces in the towns of Europe, with their wall paintings and their monuments telling of a mode of life so different from our own—narrow perhaps, and grim, but all the more intense. If ever the old saying that the whole is more than the sum of its parts had relevance, it is surely true of these products of a slow and deliberate growth, with their layers of decoration and their sequence of donations. Every chapel tells the story of generations: every villa proclaims the aspirations of men, with their idiosyncrasies, their good luck, and their follies. And yet even these survivals are threatened, and their number is dwindling every day. In Italy the murals of the masters are increasingly being detached from the walls on which they were painted and removed to museums There may be no choice here. The clouds of fumes raised by the torrent of motor traffic have begun to eat into the pigment. The frescoes will perish unless they are removed to air-conditioned rooms. Already we have seen a fabulous show of detached murals wisely displayed in the Florentine Belvedere far above the dust and exhaust that fill the street of that once peaceful city. Soon, perhaps, Giotto's frescoes may follow the Venus de Milo to Japan or the Pieta to New York.

Soon, perhaps, but not yet. So far this is only the nightmare of a worried art lover. There are still old churches and splendid palaces and villas. And there are still museums, treasure-houses to which we can return throughout a lifetime to see old friends and discover new ones. And once we have made such friends we almost cease to care whether they stand on sacking or on silk, whether we must look for them in a crowded showcase or find them in a place of honor with a new spotlight and a springing fountain. Indeed, some perverse souls may prefer the crowded display because it shows more of the treasures that have been amassed and offers us a greater opportunity to make our own discoveries.

For, the decisive argument against all the techniques that play with works of art as if they were objects of salesmanship is that there is no substitute for the pleasures of discovery. Museums may look labyrinthine and uninviting to the uninitiated, but to those who have discovered their worth they offer the prospect of a lifetime of explorations. To those of us who have acquired this taste for the permanent and inexhaustible, the exhibition offers mainly frustration—here today and gone tomorrow.

Needless to say, there are exhibitions which are worth the sacrifice. To see the whole work of a Poussin or a Delacroix assembled in one spot we may gladly put up with a sense of inadequacy. But for the rest let the museum return to its proper function, which was and is to preserve, protect, and make accessible the relics of the past which have unfortunately lost their original context. There used to be a real meaning in the designations of conservator, curator, and keeper. What alternative titles do those who betray this trust propose? The Venus de Milo was not made for the Louvre. But it has come to reside in it and it now belongs to Paris, no less than does the Mona Lisa, which the King of France inherited from Leonardo himself.

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