Posts

2014-06-19 - Picasso Blue Room Philips Collection

Conservation “Discoveries” & the Art Above Them: Picasso at the Philips Collection

2014-06-19 - Picasso Blue Room Philips Collection

Picasso’s The Blue Room under microscope in the conservation studio at the Philips Collection. Courtesy: AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

Ruth Osborne

Traditionally, conservation and treatment analysis has been carried out on a work that requires such attention to ensure its physical stability.

Removing layers of grime and dirt or a yellowing varnish is the standard conservator’s diagnosis. With the invention of the blockbuster exhibition in the 1970s, more and more paintings were sent to the conservator’s studio in preparation for international travel to ensure works looked bright enough to appear before an audience of millions. Recently, more paintings have been placed under the microscope simply for the thrill of a hoped-for discovery.

This week’s case in point: Picasso’s The Blue Room at the Philips. Reports were made of a “hidden man” revealed beneath the top layer, shown to the conservator’s eye by the light of thermal imaging. It had reportedly been “long suspected” that there was something hidden beneath its surface, as connoisseurs’ eyes noticed an inconsistency between the brushstrokes in this area with the rest of the composition. Suspicion noted in a conservator’s letter from 1954 finally found justification with X-ray technology in the 1990s that was confirmed in 2008 by infrared imagery that allowed conservators to view the bearded man’s face.

For the past five years, scientists from major conservation departments in the Northeast have been working on getting a clearer vision of the figure in the painting. These include important players like Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and Cornell University. Researchers are now on their own path attempting to pin down just whom the portrait depicts. [1]

News reports proudly announce the new advantages brought to studying art thanks to new scientific methods. As an article in Popular Mechanics relates revealingly:

“These days infrared technology is revealing all kinds of secrets about decades- or even centuries-old works of art. Phillips Collection associate conservator Patricia Favero, who works on this project, talks with us about art sleuthing with science…”[2] 

2014-06-19 - Picasso Blue Room mustached man

The mustached man beneath The Blue Room. Courtesy: AP Photo/The Philips Collection.

So far, the Picasso has undergone technical analysis by means of multi-spectral imaging technology and X-ray fluorescence intensity mapping. But this treats artistic heritage as objects to be poked and prodded at for the sake of discovery. According to the press office at the Philips Collection, their Picasso was under the microscope for reasons unrelated to its upcoming travel for exhibition in South Korea in 2015. We suspect it was being studied not in the interest of maintaining its physical integrity, but instead for the sake of uncovering the hidden figure beneath the surface. But at what risk to the finished image by the artist?

Recent “discoveries” like this one at the Philips have been highlighted in the media that praise the new advances in imaging technologies allowing modern conservators and scientists to hover closer over important artworks.  These include a whale found beneath overpainting in a seventeenth-century Dutch seascape, a women painted over by Van Gogh, a Leonardo mural hidden beneath layers of old whitewash, and an ancient Roman fresco hidden under the work of nineteenth-century artist Giampetro Campana.[3] But one important thing news articles have failed to address is the impact of such thermal imaging on the paintings that allows them to make these discoveries.

For instance, the same high-intensity X-rays that exist in a particle accelerator were those used by a materials scientist and chemist in Belgium to scan the Van Gogh. Words used to describe the process are troublesome: “powerful X-ray bombardment caused atoms in the picture’s layers of paint to emit ‘fluorescent’ X-rays of their own.”[4] How does a treatment so forceful as to cause activity in the chemical structure of the painting not pose a threat to its overall stability?

As to the Picasso at the Philips, Director Dorothy Kosinski’s statement is emblematic of the rather voracious appetite with which collections are tossing works into the conservation studio:

“Our audiences are hungry for this. It’s kind of detective work. It’s giving them a doorway of access that I think enriches, maybe adds mystery, while allowing them to be part of a piecing together of a puzzle…The more we can understand, the greater our appreciation is of its significance in Picasso’s life.”

No doubt this five year-long examination is sure to go on until those involved find the gem they’re looking for. This discovery holds the possibility of making their Picasso world-famous for its hidden secrets about this household-name artist.  Major exhibitions and travel are upcoming for The Blue Room; after it tours to South Korea next year, it will be the center of a major Picasso exhibit for 2017.

 

[1]Brett Zonigker, “AP Exclusive: Picasso painting reveals hidden man,” Yahoo News. 17 June 2014. http://news.yahoo.com/ap-exclusive-picasso-painting-reveals-hidden-man-065651732.html (last accessed 19 June 2014).

[2]Darren Orr, “Discovering a Hidden Picasso,” Popular Mechanics. 18 June 2014. http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/extreme-machines/discovering-a-hidden-picasso-16904979 (last accessed 19 June 2014).

[3] “5 Lost Images Found Hidden Beneath Famous Paintings,” Gizmodo. 19 June 2014. http://gizmodo.com/5-lost-images-found-hidden-beneath-famous-paintings-1592796080 (last accessed 19 June 2014); “Whale tale: a Dutch seascape and its lost Leviathan,” University of Cambridge. Research News. 4 June 2014. http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/whale-tale-a-dutch-seascape-and-its-lost-leviathan (last accessed 20 June 2014).

[4] “X-rays reveal Van Gogh portrait,” BBC News: Europe. 31 July 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7535574.stm (last accessed 20 June 2014).

 

2012-11-17 - Antonio Carneo Treatment Blanton Museum

Transparency and Neglect: Conservation on Display

Einav Zamir
2012-11-17 - Artifact Lab Conserving Egyptian Mummies University of Pennsylvania

“In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies” – an exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania that focuses on the process of conserving ancient artifacts. Courtesy: Past Horizons blog.

In what seems like a new trend to explore the world of art conservation through process-oriented exhibitions, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, in conjunction with the National Gallery of Canada, opened “Restoration and Revelation: Conserving the Suida-Manning Collection” to the public on Saturday, November 17.

The exhibition focuses on the conservation efforts, including the cleaning and repainting, of several Old Master paintings and drawings from the museum’s Suida-Manning Collection, established in 1998. In a recent press release, the Blanton Museum stresses the potential for discovery, asserting that “new knowledge about the works and their makers” can result from restorations. However, the use of a reconstructive approach (repainting) in treating these objects suggests a greater interest in “visual integrity” than historical veracity.

Similar exhibitions, such as the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s “In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies,” create environments in which patrons can actually view restorations through a glass-enclosed conservation lab. The Ghent Altarpiece cleaning is also on display for public viewing. While it would seem that a certain degree of transparency is implicit in such demonstrations, thereby creating a sense of accountability, the effect is rather to heroicize art conservation and its practitioners.

2012-11-17 - Antonio Carneo Treatment Blanton Museum

Antonio Carneo’s “The Death of Rachel” undergoing conservation treatment at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, for the current exhibition “Restoration and Revelation” at UT Austin. Courtesy: UT Austin.

Perhaps a more fair and balanced approach to the many issues concerning the conservation of paintings, particularly those that have suffered severe deterioration, would produce an honest examination of the field overall. As James Beck and Michael Daley state in their book, Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business, and the Scandal, “The ‘science of restoration’, like all science, is not a monolithic cure-all.” If a museum rejects this reasoning, then questions regarding the moral implications of extensive repainting, and the museum’s obligation to its patrons to present clear delineations between original and contemporary components of any work, are otherwise wholly ignored. Any knowledge gained from such an exhibition is therefore tempered by what has been lost – the opportunity to develop a more informed audience, and therefore, a more critical public opinion.

“Restoration and Revelation: Conserving the Suida-Manning Collection,” is scheduled to run through May 5, 2013.

2007-12-29 - Leonardo loan protest
,

Art on Loan

One senses that the ante has been upped in the deal-making world of art loans. Quite a few “first-and-only-time” loans have been made this year.

A conspicuous example has been the traveling exhibition of three panels and several smaller pieces of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, which are in the midst of a nearly year-long journey from their home in Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Seattle Art Museum, the last of these a late addition after intensive lobbying. Much hyped is the rarity of the exhibition, presented as the only time they will travel outside of Florence, due to the undeniable risks posed. A curator at the Art Institute has commented, “Sculpture doesn’t travel well, in general, and so the fact that three of the panels from the Gates can travel at all is remarkable.”

Regardless of the educational and altruistic rhetoric, that these are works that are traveling to offer an unprecedented opportunity for people to study and learn about certain treasures, the reality is that objects are being moved primarily for economic reasons, whether they be international or local. While the entire Ghiberti tour has been seen, undoubtedly somewhat simplistically, as reciprocal arrangement following the donation of funds by the U.S. group Friends of Florence for the restoration of the doors, there are local benefits as well. In the case of the Seattle stop, at least one local hotel is offering the “Gates of Paradise Package.”

2007-12-29 - Leonardo loan protestPerhaps an even more impressive deal was made by British Museum  to secure the loan from China of twenty terracotta statues of the warriors of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, dating to the third century BCE. The twenty are just a small fraction of the 1000 figures that were unearthed in 1974 – about 7000 still await excavation – but it is the largest amount of this material to ever leave China. Previous exhibitions in Germany and Austria were composed of copies only, though still drawing impressive crowds. The Chinese government has recently made claims that a current exhibition at the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology is made entirely of copies, and the museum has been forced to offer refunds to the 10,000 visitors who have seen the show since it opened in late November.

With the demand high and hype higher, the British Museum show, entitled The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, is a guaranteed blockbuster. By mid-October it was announced that 200,000 tickets at $25 apiece had been sold, and by late November, tickets were sold out straight through February. The tremendous visibility of the show has also attracted a major corporate sponsor, Morgan Stanley. As a way of further validating their support, Morgan Stanley has made the analogy between their role in being the first to bring international investment services to China, and their role in bringing these statues for the first time from their native land.

And the show doesn’t stop here. After it completes its engagement in London, the terracottas and a collection of 120 objects in total will travel to the High Museum in Atlanta. And while the museums and the sponsors involved have gotten great benefit from the arrangement, China stands to benefit as well. Britain has sent three shows in return, and in addition to this exchange, China will undoubtedly see the added effect of stirring interest in Chinese culture in the wake of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Atlanta’s High Museum, which will host both of these shows, is setting the new standard for international art loans – they engineered not only “first-and-only” shipments of the Gates of Paradise and Andrea del Verrocchio’s  David, but also made the partnership with the Louvre Museum in Paris to send a series of exhibitions to Atlanta, all following the High’s recent $85 million addition which doubled its space. And other museums are following suit, both nationally and internationally. Seattle Art Museum also recently doubled its special exhibition space – and like the High, has arranged to show rarely-shipped works from the Louvre’s collection early in 2008.

The Museo del Prado in Madrid likewise just opened their expanded space by Rafael Moneo, with an additional 237,000 square feet, at the cost of $219 million. The Prado remodeling will bring to light many works that have been languishing in storage. But at the same time, the project was driven by the desire to be a “world-class” institution in terms of attracting blockbuster exhibitions and large numbers of visitors, a record number of which are expected this year, as well as meeting the expectations that are now the norms for museum goers: restaurants,  education rooms, and shops. In an effort to make-over their venerable institution, the Prado also sought “rebranding” by Studio Fernando Gutiérrez, which created for them a new logo, signage and a new marquee aimed at attracting commercial sponsorship and raising money for temporary shows.

Perhaps a less audacious loan in terms of scale, but noteworthy nonetheless for the rare stirring of opposition it caused, was the shipment of Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation, which resides in Florence’s Uffizi Museum, to Tokyo this past spring as the star attraction of the exhibition, The Mind of Leonardo – The Universal Genius at Work. The show was part of a larger promotional event called Primavera Italiana 2007, which had as its primary goal the promotion of Italian culture and business ventures in Japan. The loan was not without controversy, especially as it could potentially be viewed as violating a 2004 Italian law which forbids the loan of any object considered essential to its home institution. Although facilitated by the Italian Culture Minister, Francesco Rutelli, prominent critics included the director of the Uffizi Antonio Natali and Italian senator Paolo Amato, the latter of which staged a protest outside of the museum when it was moved.

But the issue is not just single, and supposedly, one-time instances of loans. Large-scale loans by some major institutions are becoming par for the course. The Vatican has recently announced its most substantial collection of objects ever be sent to the southern hemisphere, on a 2008 tour for the exhibition Vatican: The Story, The Art, The Architecture that will include the Auckland Museum in New Zealand and Sydney. As in the case of many recent blockbusters eager for the notion of exclusivity and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the director of Auckland Museum has stressed that these works will probably never travel there again. The more than eighty objects, which include portraits by Titian and Bernini, as well as an early cast of Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà, are of such value that they are requiring government insurance and a high level of security to guarantee their safety.

Other recent “firsts” include the current Van Gogh retrospective at the Seoul Museum of Art, Van Gogh: Voyage into the Myth, with sixty-seven works on loan from the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is the first Van Gogh exhibition in Korea, and the largest Van Gogh exhibition held since the one marking the centennial anniversary of his death in 1990.

2007-02-05 - Andrea Mantegna San Zeno altarpiece
,

Another Anniversary

James Beck

Timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the death of Andrea Mantegna (born c. 1431) in 1506, three Italian cities in which the artist executed some of his major works are hosting exhibitions in the artist’s honor: Mantua, Padua and Verona, each set to run from 16 September 2006 until 14 January 2007.

Mantua’s exhibition, Mantegna a Mantova: 1460/1506, will be held at Palazzo Te, Padua’s Mantegna e Padova: 1445/1460 will be held at the Eremitani Museum, while Verona’s Mantegna e le arti a Verona will be at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia.

As is often the case with large blockbusters, the organizers have emphasized several opportunities for the visitor that make the show a must-see. It has already been announced that when the exhibitions end in January, the San Zeno Altarpiece in Verona, one of Mantegna’s most important works, will undergo an extensive two-year restoration campaign, making this the viewer’s last chance to see the work for the near future. The exhibition also offers the opportunity to see the Ovetari Chapel frescoes in the Eremitani in Padua, which were shattered into 80,000 small fragments following an airstrike in 1944. With the help of new computer software, they have been recomposed and will be on view as part of the anniversary celebrations.

In order to orchestrate the events, the Ministry for the Cultural Heritage and Activities created an 82-member National Committee (Comitato Nazionale per le Celebrazioni del quinto centenario della morte di Andrea Mantegna) composed of scholars and government officials. In a nearly unprecedented example of the mass-shipment of works of art, 140 museums and collections agreed to lend works of art by the artist and related masters, 352 of them in total. The website for the project calls the undertaking “a completely new type of exhibition” in terms of its scope, with each of the cities hosting not only their share of the primary exhibition, but numerous other related shows at secondary sites. On behalf of the exhibition, Alpitour is offering 2- and 3-day travel packages to all of the shows, for E135 and E245, respectively.

As in the case of most large exhibitions, the works are undoubtedly put at risk by their shipment. Some daunting statistics are offered on the exhibition’s website: The collective insured value of the works is E647,000,000, and fifty-five works were restored for the shows, with a total cost of E271,000. The exhibition also touts the obligatory “new discoveries,” such as the Madonna della Tenerezza, a formerly unknown painting in a private collection, which is annexed to the Padua show (on view at Palazzo Zuckermann).

Not all of the loans were easily acquired. Vittorio Sgarbi, President of the Mantegna Committee and curator of the Mantua exhibition, requested that the city of Bergamo loan Mantegna’s Madonna and Child, currently housed in the Accademia Carrara. Bergamo, which refused the loan citing the painting’s fragile condition, subsequently distributed 20,000 free passes for entrance to the Accademia to see the work.

Other loan requests by the organizers of the Mantuan exhibition were met with similar reluctance on the part of the institutions. The Brera Gallery in Milan refused to send Mantegna’s Dead Christ, also citing its delicate condition. Sgarbi claimed that the museum was “telling lies,” since the work had been shipped to Mantua in 2002 for another exhibition: “It is not possible for a work to have been in good condition four years ago, when it was loaned to Mantua, and ‘sick’ now. Someone is not telling the truth. We send troops to Lebanon, but not paintings to each other”. Despite pressure applied by Sgarbi, who claimed that the absence of the Dead Christ and the St. Sebastian from the Ca’ d’Oro would cost E1.6m in entrance fees, approximating that 200,000 fewer people would attend, the Italian Culture Minister and Vice Prime Minister Francesco Rutelli initially supported the Brera’s decision.

Sgarbi wrote an open letter to Rutelli:

“Dear Minister, Get them to tell you the truth. Brera will not loan us Mantegna’s Dead Christ and Ca’d’Oro refuses to give us the Saint Sebastian. The galleries are making it a health issue, saying that the paintings cannot be moved because they are unwell. Do not allow yourself to be bullied by deceitful officials: intervene so that we can have them”.

Sgarbi argued that the works were in a satisfactory condition, and therefore should be sent to the exhibition, but that if they were in fact that fragile, it was wrong to let them deteriorate further and his committee would fund their restoration.

Initially, Rutelli held his ground and did not overrule the technical judgment of Brera officials. The ministry defended the decision of the Brera, citing the unusual methods of the painting, which is tempera on canvas. Then, in August, Rutelli announced: “I approved that the Dead Christ of Brera be sent to the Mantegna exhibition in Mantua after an in-depth technical inspection. We have also made available some other works that were requested by the organizing committee and the city mayors, with the help of the Ministry. I feel that guidelines should be decided for loans and exhibitions, and that is why I have set up a Commission with a high scientific profile, in order to help requests be made with greater certainty.”  Rutelli has since announced the formation of a Committee to establish official state guidelines for the lending of works of art.

Like the Brera, the Ca d’Oro in Venice also had objections to the lending of one of its Mantegna works, a Saint Sebastian. Their refusal was multi-faceted. First, they argued, the work was currently undergoing restoration, which could take an additional few months. Secondly, they argued that the museum’s collection was substantially diminished by its absence.

With anniversary exhibitions on the rise and an ever greater interest in more complete shows with more impressive loans, the Mantegna exhibitions in Mantua, Padua and Verona have set a very dangerous precedent. No longer will the fragility of an object be a hindrance to the loan of any work deemed critical for an exhibition, even if — or especially if — the need is a financial one.

2007-02-05 - Goya

Goya Lost (and Found)!

Although larger and more ambitious exhibitions have become a mainstay of the museum calendar and a primary draw for visitors, the threat posed to the art objects selected for shipment are minimized by the museum officials responsible for the decision.

On the night of 7-8 November, a painting by the Spanish master Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was stolen on route from its home in the Toledo Museum in Ohio to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for the exhibition Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth and History, opening on November 17th. The exhibition was designed to bring together 135 paintings from Spanish artists from the 16th to 20th centuries.

Children with a Cart, a tapestry cartoon painted in 1778, disappeared from a truck parked overnight at a Howard Johnson Inn near Bartonsville, Pennsylvania, while being transported by a professional art shipping company. It was ensured for $1 million, and the unnamed shipping company quickly offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to its return. Few details were released following the crime, which was investigated by the FBI.

The theft of the Goya painting is but a symptom of the drive on the part of museums to host grander exhibitions, ultimately accomplished through agreements to borrow artworks from — and loan artworks to — other institutions, particularly those that are never or infrequently removed from their permanent homes. Although the stolen work came from another American collection, the 27 October press release by the Guggenheim regarding the exhibition celebrates this “first-time” mentality prevalent in the formation of the blockbuster. The sub-heading on the release announced “Many National Treasures Travelling from Spain to the U.S for the First Time”. Emphasis is made on the shipment of works, especially the sixty-five paintings sent from Spain, including fifteen from the Prado and ten from the Reina Sofía.

Despite the theft, Jordan Rundgren, the public relations manager for the Toledo Museum, announced that the museum’s policy of sending works of art out on loan to other institutions would remain unchanged. Perhaps this is not as surprising as it seems, since the Toledo Museum — even in nearly losing a painting from its own collection — benefits from the shipment of artworks. Currently showing at the museum is the exhibition In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite, which features frescoes from five ancient villas of Stabiae. The museum’s website touts this “extremely rare exhibition of 2,000-year-old Roman frescoes that have never before toured the United States”.

The good news? On 20 November the FBI announced that the Goya painting had been recovered in central New Jersey, following a tip phoned in by a lawyer. It was one of at least three major art recoveries that have been celebrated in the press this year. Two other recent major art thefts, those of Benvenuto Cellini’s Salt Cellar and Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Madonna, have also been returned to their respective homes. The Salt Cellar, valued at $58 million, was discovered in January after being stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2003. Likewise, Munch’s paintings, stolen from the Munch Museum in Norway in 2004, were discovered by Norwegian police in August.

Despite the public statement by the Toledo Museum that works would continue to be sent out on loan, the painting will not be sent to the exhibition at the Guggenheim, but rather will be returned to Ohio where it can be shared with the community. The Guggenheim’s Director, Lisa Dennison, said that it was “understandable that the Toledo Museum would want to bring the stolen painting back to its home after this nerve-racking experience.”

In a seeming lapse in logic, the Toledo Museum, understandably rattled but relieved, has returned the work to its institution, all the while vowing to repeat the same practices that put the work in unnecessary jeopardy. If the theft of art works does not lead to the reconsideration of lending policies, then these incidents will undoubtedly happen again, and possibly without the same fortunate results.

The National Gallery and Masaccio

Masaccio was the first truly Renaissance artist who, in his short lifetime of 26 years of which perhaps only five were as an independent master, managed to revolutionize Western painting.

He was born in 1401 and in honor of his 600th anniversary, a few relatively modest events are being planned for his birthplace of San Giovanni Valdarno, which does not possess a single work by their local hero. London’s National Gallery has scheduled a far more ambitious event. The Gallery owns the enthroned Madonna and Child which originated as the central section of the altarpiece for the Carmine Church in Pisa. This painting, really a large fragment of the whole, is well documented as having been executed for the chapel of a wealthy notary, Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi, during the calendar year 1426. It forms one of the very few fixed points in the short career of the master and the entire Renaissance, for that matter.

The altarpiece was a highly complex structure composed of a predella, the broad and rather large central panel including four standing saints, smaller ones set into pilasters (?), half-length saints, and other representations at the uppermost zone. In the later 16th Century Masaccio’s polyptych was removed from the chapel, which was located on the tramezzo and which was demolished. At some point, presumably shortly thereafter, altarpiece was cut up. In the process the four side saints, two on either side of the enthroned Madonna, including the patron saint of the donor and that of his father (Colino=Niccolò), were separated and have disappeared. Other losses include smaller sections, and possibly a strip at the bottom of the Madonna panel which, in turn, was very severely cleaned in the more distant past. In other words what is left of the original painting is highly fragmentary. To be sure, theoretical reconstructions have been offered from time to time by art scholars, but none have received the full support of their colleagues. One of the complicating factors is that the design of the pala was still in the late Gothic style and was created not by Masaccio but by a Sienese carpenter.

In addition to the marvelous Madonna, which was purchased by the National Gallery in 1916, other smaller panels known to have formed part of the altarpiece are found in public collections in Los Angeles, Berlin, Pisa and Naples. The National Gallery has announced that all of the known parts, eleven including their own, will be brought together for an exhibition in London from September 12 to November 11. As a parenthesis, I cannot hide my puzzlement that the National Gallery does not keep it open until Masaccio’s actual birthday on December 21st. Perhaps it doesn’t fit into the Gallery’s plans for the Christmas show.

On its face, the proposal to bring together these sections seems reasonable enough. But upon reflection serious doubts are raised concerning the use of the world’s artistic heritage by this newsworthy exhibition.

The goal seems to be to bring the “masterpiece back to life” [Daily Telegraph, 12 July 2001], that is to “attempt to reconstruct” the polyptych. According to the Gallery itself, however, what will be presented probably amounts to “only a third of the original work.” So if the goal is as stated – and what else could it possibly be? – it is a flawed one. Besides, one of the fundamental issues for any reconstruction of the altarpiece is the very nature and appearance of the frame and how the different extant sections relate to it and to one another. The frame, however, has totally disappeared without any meaningful clues as to its original appearance. In other words the very objective of the exhibition is really an impossibility to start with, and the promised conferences of art historians cannot change the situation.

Perhaps the hidden agenda may instead involve public relations, which has become part of the museum’s modus operandi anyway. By showing how clever they are in bringing these rare objects together, the National Gallery apparently can expect to accrue valuable publicity. This objective is hardly unique to the National Gallery, but it is exceptionally adept at this kind of activity, more so than the Met or the Washington National Gallery. And, of course, the thought that these works will be brought together from far-flung places is pleasant enough. The handful of specialists who might be interested and understand the nuances of the situation should be contented. After all, I recall a difficult winter day in Berlin when I went to specifically to see the seven sections of the Masaccio altarpiece there, several of which are actually autograph, that is, by the master himself: the others are by his workshop.

Still, shipping works around the world should give one pause. It can be dangerous for at least three reasons: (1) there is always the possibility of an accident, either from a plane crash, a boat sinking, truck accidents, dropping, or the like, and not even Dr. Neil McGregor, the National’s skillful Director, with all his power, could prevent such an occurrence; (2) the changes in the natural or acquired environments of delicate works of art inevitably involves some risk, all the more so in the case of paintings on prepared wood panels. This despite all of the preparations and special containers with constant humidity. How this condition compares with the location in their “homes” in Berlin and Naples is quite another matter. Besides according to reliable reports from scientific institutes, the shipment of art works, no matter how carefully executed, is damaging: it is merely a question of how much damage occurs; (3) very often in exhibitions such as this one, special treatment for the paintings is required to help them sustain the trip, treatments which often include unnecessary and frequently misleading restorations.

If I have lined up some of the negatives for the presentation of the exhibition, perhaps we might try to present positives: (1) you could hope to bring more people to the National Gallery to view and appreciate art than might otherwise have come. Of course, while specialists are very keen on Masaccio, the rest of the population probably does not even recognize his name, or retains but a faint memory from an Art Appreciation course in college. It will not be a door buster, and cannot be expected to provide the opportunity to sell a lot of catalogues at the book shop, or generate much needed cash for the Gallery. (2) By bringing these parts together, Masaccio specialists may be aided in their ongoing efforts to determine the authorship of the various parts, separating the hand of the master from that of his workshop, a fairly esoteric activity which could also be done without shipping the objects. (3) There is a publicity value in showing the Museum to be active on an international scale, and thus an institution to admire and support financially.

A very simple, inexpensive, and secure alternative to the National Gallery’s initiative for Masaccio is readily available, and ArtWatch International has urged the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Berlin Museum, and the National Museums in Pisa and Naples to consider it. They should send high-quality scale facsimiles of their treasures and keep the originals in their proper and safe place. The goals of a pseudo-reconstruction and comparison between the works can be obtained just the same. One is quite able to study and reconstruct to one’s heart’s content without any danger to the rare originals, especially, I must single out, the Adoration of the Magi in Berlin, a tiny masterpiece in quite good condition which ranks with the best pictures of the Fifteenth Century, and the Crucifixion in Naples, another gem, although it has undergone considerable modern restorations. Nevertheless it is a work of the most rare beauty. And if, Heaven forbid, an accident should occur, the reproductions would be lost and could be easily replaced, but the originals would still be there in Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie and in the Capodimonte, where they belong. The fact is that Dr. McGregor himself has stated that it took two years to persuade the other institutions to lend their works. Sometimes even governments get involved in the persuasion efforts or alternatively a borrowing institution coaxes the potential lender by promises of sending them a prestigious work in the future.

To return to the larger issue of the treatment of our treasures, I suggest that the Crucifixion exhibition is basically one which is motivated by efforts to gain prestige for the institution and consequently to reap rewards. This condition is similar to more ambitious blockbuster exhibitions which are held in large and small museums alike with some regularity all over the world and which involve the sending of objects hither and yon. At its core, the problem presents a dilemma. The commercialization of the museum in the West with its explosive museum stores selling every conceivable object, hiring vast fund raising and press relations staffs, and using all of the sophisticated tricks of advanced public relations to make their point involves an obvious rationalization: these are wonderful institutions of culture, they offer wide public access to works of art and a certain amount of instruction on how to understand the art, and they are the objective of “cultural” tourism. They are in constant need of funds to carry out their good work.

So what is really wrong with selling Matisse ties or Michelangelo mouse pads, where the poor little critters get stuck forever on a glue mat showing God creating Adam. It’s fun, it’s practical, it helps the institution. Why fuss? So what if the Metropolitan Museum has fifteen Museum shops, located from California and Texas to Florida? They contribute to the needs of the Museum and even provide work for artisans and middlemen. And if they have fifteen, why not twenty? And what is to stop the Louvre from doing the same, and the Uffizi, and the Prado? And what is wrong with the restoration, unnecessary in the view of Italy’s new Under-secretary of Fine Arts (and my own), of Michelangelo’s Moses, shown on-line, where you can play Moses games? What is wrong with having restaurants all over the Museum of Modern Art, or renting out the main hall of the Metropolitan or the Uffizi for a fashion show or a wedding reception? For many, there is nothing wrong; in fact, it is a pretty good thing, for in this way the institutions become self-sufficient and do not need government support. The issue is a lingering one and requires long and careful debate. It should become one of the crucial issues which the culture will have to face full-front in the coming years.

On Traveling Exhibitions

The business of exhibitions puts masterpieces at risk.

In recent months a controversy has re-erupted in the press and among art experts in Italy which is gradually spilling onto the international scene. Its impact upon the habits of displaying art treasures cannot be underestimated. The influential, skillful and politically adept Soprintendente of Fine Arts of Florence, Dr. Antonio Paolucci, the man who recently supervised the widely acclaimed restorations in Assisi after an earthquake rocked the basilica there, has been organizing a mammoth exhibition of Italian Renaissance art to be sent from Italy to Japan. Others shows of a similar nature have quietly been sent to Asia over the past few years, without much outcry. This one is far more encompassing in terms of the fame of the objects as well as their sheer number, in the hundreds, which will be wrapped, crated and shipped in temperature-controlled containers. Paolucci, whose impeccable curriculum vitae includes a stint as Italy’s Minister of Culture in a previous government, has been publicly attacked for his plan.

Serious objections have been raised about the dangers of shipping rare art works – Titians, Leonardos, and Michelangelos – even from Paolucci’s own usually solid ranks (e.g., the Soprintendente of the Veneto, Filippa Aliberti Gaudioso), as well as from art historians, including Professors Carlo Bertelli (who was formerly a soprintendente) and Alessandro Parronchi, the dean of Italian scholars, not to mention restoration specialist Professor Francesco Guerrieri of the University of Florence. The attacks this time have not come from art rights groups who have long ago pointed out the dangers, quite specifically when the Barnes Collection was sent around the world, but the art establishment itself, including the respected editor of London’s Burlington Magazine, Dr. Caroline Elam. Has there been a sea of change?

Blockbuster exhibitions have been a cornerstone of museum operations, at least for the past generation, being regarded as central postate in annual programming almost everywhere. These art spectaculars, looked upon with relish by the institutions’ fundraisers, the curators who participate in the planning and the structuring of the shows, the art restorers who get the objects in shape for display, not to mention socialites and firstnighters, publishers, and the press, have never before faced such a serious challenge to their legitimacy.

Positive aspects of blockbusters, and there are some, can be readily enumerated. Increased revenue which normally is expected to result from a successful blockbuster is nothing to sneeze at, planting the possibility in the minds of the cynically inclined that such is the main motivation. To be precise, increased entrance fees are not the only source of the infusion of money from the big shows. Catalogue sales, which can run into the tens of thousands of copies and even more when external sales are calculated, can produce decent revenue. Specialized products sold in the ubiquitous museum shops constitute yet another element that benefits from blockbusters, bringing the balance sheet further into the black. As a spin-off as well, the museum bars and restaurants are busier than usual when the postate are open. And, one should not forget that with the expanded attendance annual membership figures climb, and, after all, every little bit helps.

The tourism, and with it the political quotient, obviously comes into play, which is specifically the case with Paolucci’s Japanese show, an event that could not be contemplated without governmental support. The explicit intention is to demonstrate the grandeur of the Italian tradition by placing on the circuit Michelangelos, Raphaels, Titians, and Donatellos, among others. Presumably the display would add stimulus for increased tourism in Italy, just as Sensation has done so for Brooklyn, if not for all of New York. From it, we can anticipate that the waiting time in front of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Michelangelo’s David at the Academia will lengthen beyond the current two or three hours. Peddlers may very well benefit too by selling more postcards and knickknacks to the well-disciplined but bored tourists waiting their turn for enlightenment. The major cities with great collections, like New York, Washington, London, Paris, Madrid and St. Petersburg, have very deep ties with museums, arguably the principal tourist attraction in these cities, and all that they signify for the hotels, restaurants and shops. Art is big business and a gigantic attraction. If the blockbuster is sensational enough, everyone seems to benefit, that is, except the art works.

Less direct but equally sought after benefits of blockbusters include the publicity which inevitably can be counted on from the media. Is there a journalist who does not love an exhibition of the Young Picasso, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or Ingres Portraits, Egyptian Gold, a Real or Fake Michelangelo Cupid, or Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors? These postate are even advertised in the mass media and in the metro to get the highest attendance possible. Together with more money and increased attendance, good will is banked for the future at the Metropolitan, London’s and Washington’s National Galleries. An analogy made be drawn with fundraising for public television which must be regarded as self-advertising that is transmitted with frustrating frequency. Over the past few years, the corporate sponsors are being rewarded with mini-ads for their largess. Are similar compromises also necessary in the function of museums?

Together with the public relations value and the effects of expanded tourism, museum rhetoric is quick to proclaim the value of spectacular shows upon scholarship, which is regarded as a sacred cow. Scholars and specialists are able to see, compare and contrast to their hearts content, works by a given artist, school or region all at the same time. They do not have to go to dozens of far-flung museums, remote churches, obscure private collections, and dingy drawing cabinets. They can see all the objects together. To confront versions and contemporary works in a single space seems to be a unique and incomparable opportunity, and can result, the line continues, in scholarly insights and discoveries. Many, and in some cases most, of the objects of a given category or by a selected artist can be seen, one by one, until the eyes get bleary.

I cannot resist commenting that for me seeing two hundred Cezannes, or two hundred works by anybody else, makes my head spin, and in the end I get very little out of the experience except a slight case of nausea. These monstrous piling-ups are effectively less informative than a carefully and thoughtfully selected, much smaller exhibition in which a curator uses his critical skills and makes judgments based upon a studied but personal view of a given artist or school. Some sort of informed selection has been offered by the specialist, and not left to an uninformed helter-skelter viewing. In this instance, there seems no doubt that more is less, anyway. Of course a disciplined viewer might decide to go to the blockbuster eight or ten times, and look at a small number of objects each visit, but perhaps that is asking too much. Ironically, the way in which the blockbusters present an artist’s oeuvre was never even available to the creating artists themselves, for works disappeared from the studio through sales and commissions.

And there is a practical spin-off of the transport of artworks as well. The museum staffs get numerous free trips to the great cities of the world, for the purpose of scouting around during the early stages of the process while in the later one, they supervise and often accompany the travel of the art objects from their institutions. And one could hardly expect them to travel economy or to stay in second-class hotels.

Specialized studies, inevitably accompanied by weighty and usually unreadable catalogues, are claimed to be, and with a certain justification, the most prestigious art scholarship of the moment. This scholarly component, sub-vented by willing sponsors – international oil companies, cigarette manufacturers, local and national banks – gives increased legitimacy to the blockbuster and make wonderful gifts to their clients.

What is not taken properly into account is that very soon if not already with a modicum of effort, technology will be available to create high quality, exact-scale facsimiles. By substituting such computer-generated images, the questioning of the viability of shipping precious art works around the world indiscriminately will be mooted. If my assessment is correct, we may finally be witnessing the beginning of the end for blockbusters as we have known them, and the concomitant risks to the art objects will be radically reduced.

Another incontrovertible benefit will accrue. No longer will the normal permanent exhibits of museums be disrupted by the removal of ‘stars’ from their collections. Nor will the famous works be pulled out of churches and museums. After all, who wants to go to Rome’s Borghese and not see Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (despite its recent harsh overcleaning) or Milan’s Brera and not see Mantegna’s Dead Christ? Leave the objects in their original homes or in their acquired ones, should be the rule.

A further advantage of using facsimiles, which need not be glossy, is that they can, ironically, be more accurate than the originals as they have come down to us. We know paintings have been cut down over the centuries, they have been damaged by natural disasters, and they have been severely modified by repainting and overcleanings. Reconstructions can be offered in exhibitions which aim to give the appearance of the original, and even several alternative interpretations can be presented at the same time. Furthermore, facsimile images can be updated and corrected by the computers that generate them in the first place as our knowledge expands. Of course the specialist will always need to view the objects in their current state, but that eventuality involves merely moving a few people, without threat to the safety of the art.

The facsimile alternative should turn out to be a bonanza in terms the usual goal of blockbusters for completeness. There are always works which, for one reason or another, cannot be shipped, including frescoes (except when detached), paintings and sculptures in collections with rules against loans, not to mention bulky monuments. These can all be supplied with relative ease, low cost, and considerable accuracy. The goal of what might be termed completeness is something of a pipe dream, anyway. To have all the works of a Matisse, even from a limited period, is an impossibility, if one takes into account the works that an artist himself may have destroyed, and those that have been lost or have otherwise disappeared. All the more difficult is the re-creation of total oeuvres of artists from the more distant past.

The claim on the part of museum executives is that expanded public attendance, which is a sought-after goal of blockbusters, is automatically desirable. The argument is double-edged, however, for more may not really be the merrier. That the Sistine Chapel, following its widely publicized restoration, draws double the number of persons it did before 1980 does not make visiting the chapel a sensitive aesthetic experience. The spectacle atmosphere, as with blockbusters, means that the viewer sees the back of heads instead of the Old Testament scenes and Michelangelo’s heroic Prophets and Sibyls, in an atmosphere where the noise level is crushing.

Yet ‘the more the better’ is a fixation among museum directors. Pile them in, get the mass public in the vicinity of an art work, and by an alchemical process they will be informed and enriched. Oddly enough, we do not use this argument for a concert of a Bach cantata, which needs musical sophistication and a certain amount of musical education. By merely attending a prestigious exhibition, does the uninformed viewer really benefit? Perhaps a few might be motivated to see more, but this could be more effectively accomplished by other means. After all, the permanent collections of the Louvre, the Met, the National Gallery, and the Prado are so impressive that there is no need to import other objects to get people inclined toward the appreciation of art.

Finally, the obvious danger to the objects from travel and changing environments is spoken of openly. Even if the transport and packaging skills are improving, there is no doubt that works get shaken up when in transport just as we human beings do, on those bumpy roads to and from the airport, and even by jolting movements in the plane. Beyond that, the ever-present possibility of a mistake or an accident cannot be denied, planes crash and ships still sink.

On a less material level, further questions surrounding the blockbuster can be raised. Is the circus atmosphere and the Disneyland overtones which surround them desirable? Is art served by being made into a spectacle? These issues open vast areas for cultural discourse concerning the treatment of art in a modern society which are best left for independent consideration on their own. Suffice to say that for many, art is the repository of spiritual and ethical values. It requires a commensurate treatment.