What ever the risks, many Vermeers are traveling again. Here is my count for 2008-2010 (two of them make two trips).
- The Astronomer – Atlanta 2008
- The Little Street – Toyko 2008
- Diana and her Compansions – Toyko 2008
- Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – Tokyo 2008
- Young Woman Seated at the Virginals – Tokyo 2008
- Woman with her Maid – Tokyo 2008
- Girl with the Wineglass – Tokyo 2008
- Lady Writing – Pasadena 2008
- Woman with a Pearl Nekclace – Rome 2008
- The Astronomer – Minneapolis 2010
- Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – The Hague 2010
- The Procuress – The Hague – 2010
Some believe shipping fragile old paintings is inherently a bad practice and that they rarely return precisely in the same condition. Austrian conservators recently battled with the Director General Wilfried Seipel of the Kunsthistorisches Museum to keep the Art of Painting from the Japanese rendezvous. Seipel shot back to the conservators who had advised giving the painting a necessary rest after a recent trip to The Hague: “I think this is a complete nonsense. If a painting lies it won’t look any better after two years.” The painting stayed home. The Herzog-Anton-Ulrich Museum quickly stepped up to the plate, the chance to bolster the reputation of the lesser-known Brunswick museum could not be passed up.
Are the risks worth it? It is no easy task to define success of an art exhibition that might offset the risks encountered (mere attendance doesn’t tell much). Perhaps it is not so much a question of staging traveling exhibitions or not: they are inevitable once museums no longer designate themselves as passive holders of the flame. It is more a matter of the quality of a travelling exhibition.
For example, Vermeer’s Love Letter came and went to Rome in 2006 without being noticed. The work was poorly hung on a garish orange wall with spotlights that produced more glare than anything else leaving the tiny work to fend for itself amongst the more robust pictures of the permanent collection. To justify the expense and occasion of a Vermeer in the Eternal City, little more was offered than a press conference to bring attention to the museum’s restructuring. I returned to the exhibit at least five times and rarely found more than few tourists amazed to find a Vermeer in Rome. Risks were run and little was gained.
On the other hand, see the invaluable rewards of texts such as Vermeer and the Delft School (ed. Liedtke) and Vermeer Studies (ed. Liedtke) and the Johannes Vermeer catalogue (ed. Wheelock) all consequences of two of the most imposing exhibitions dedicated to Vermeer. Because of them and the writings of the late John M. Montias, Vermeer is hardly the sphinx he used to be. The Achilles heel of such exhibits stems from their own success: viewing conditions of the paintings are often nearly prohibitive.
Obviously, the mere dimensions of an exhibition can hardly be equated with its quality. Modena, Italy staged an excellent exhibition in 2006 starring a single work, Vermeer’s Lady Seated at the Virginals. This late canvas was magisterially hung amidst analogous genre paintings and period objects (or similar ones) that Vermeer had used as props in his own composition. Van Baburen’s Procuress (1622), employed by Vermeer as a backdrop in his own work, proves even more vulgar than any reproduction can convey and the task of taming it to behave the Vermeer’s quiet pictorial laws appears even more amazing. When the Delft floor tiles, bass viol, and the fragile virginals on display reappear in Vermeer’s composition, they have been deprived of their most tactile values and transformed into pictorial essence: “the world has become paint.” Knowing Vermeer’s dire economic conditions in the years he painted the Lady and the intellectual struggle to transform the agitated world into still pictures, the exhibition uncovered a pathos that I had not been aware of.