October 24th, 2008

What ever the risks, many Vermeers are traveling again. Here is my count for 2008-2010 (two of them make two trips).

  1. The Astronomer – Atlanta 2008
  2. The Little Street – Toyko 2008
  3. Diana and her Compansions – Toyko 2008
  4. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – Tokyo 2008
  5. Young Woman Seated at the Virginals – Tokyo 2008
  6. Woman with her Maid – Tokyo 2008
  7. Girl with the Wineglass – Tokyo 2008
  8. Lady Writing – Pasadena 2008
  9. Woman with a Pearl Nekclace – Rome 2008
  10. The Astronomer – Minneapolis 2010
  11. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – The Hague 2010
  12. 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.

5 Responses to “Risks”

  1. ARech

    I confess I was very relieved that the Austrian Ministry for Cultural Affairs had finally confirmed the decision of the Federal Heritage Department NOT to send the ‘Art of Painting’ to Japan once more. Pity for the Japanese but, far more important, best for Vermeer’s highly fragile masterpiece. To me it was a small but hopefully effective triumph of cultural responsibility over mere money-making. The year 2006, with the incredible hype of the Rembrandt-commemoration, put the never-ending discussion about the pros and cons of large mega-event exhibitions once again on the agenda of numerous meetings and conferences concerning cultural policy and the role of the museums therein. Gary Schwartz, renowned independent art historian, leading Rembrandt-specialist and co-founder of CODART (see right-hand column), once wrote to me in a short mail-exchange about this subject:
    ” At the last CODART congress, in Leiden last month [March 2006], I chaired a workshop under the title “Rembrandt overkill?” The discussion was about the outburst of Rembrandt exhibitions this year and what they do to the works and to public perception. Most of the participants, museum curators … felt that the increased tempo of exhibitions was harmful to the works and that the scholarly quality of the average exhibition was not only too low to justify the risks, but was actually deleterious in itself to public knowledge.
    They stuck to this judgment even after the opposing speaker, from the Dutch tourist board, who told them that the museum in Leiden where we were meeting was going to have twenty times more visitors this year, thanks to Rembrandt, than the year before.”
    A typical situation, a bit like TV-programming: the only point that counts is the level of the viewers’ rate, and at the end: the amount of profit to get from them. Hardly anyone spend a thought what does even a long-distance travel mean to a painting of about 350 years’ age. Not even the greatest care in the entire transport process is able to prevent the painting entirely from any harm, either physically or by only slight change of air humidity, so that the rate of ‘stress’ for the painting could get to ‘0’. It is the same like with an old lady or man: a travel, and if it is only some stops with tram or bus, does always mean some stress for her/him. To make things worse: paintings cannot defend themselves – they are the weakest in the ‘ cultural chain’. The only kind of lobby they can (and should) have, are the conservators, knowing best the actual state of their conditions, and – hopefully – the museums’ curators, if they have a good sense of responsibility and high esteem for the invaluable and irretrievable treasure of cultural heritage they have to care for. I know that the large Vermeer-exhibitions of 1995/96, 2001 or 2003 meant likewise a considerable advancement in the international Vermeer- and Dutch 17th-century art research, which no doubt is a very positive effect. But nevertheless: Before we are thinking of visiting the next mega-exhibition (with usually bad viewing conditions, see the post above ‘You have ten seconds…’) we should spend a thought about the (rather negative) effects to the paintings. If they are damaged or even victims of a theft, they are gone forever, and future generations would no longer have the chance to study and enjoy a Vermeer or another of his painter colleagues. Why not better make a choice and visit the paintings in their homes? We would do them a great favor and contribute to their preservation.
    Maybe a compromise could be seen in smaller ‘cabinet exhibitions’ like that in Modena, described above.


  2. John the Pirate - Arrr!

    Good post, I like your writing style! I’ve added http://flyingfox.jonathanjanson.com/ to my feed reader, and will be reading your posts from now on. Just a quick question – did you design your header image yourself, or have it done professionally? If you had it done by a professional, who was it?

  3. ARech

    The header image shows the engraving ‘Profile of Delft’, a section of the large ‘Kaart Figuratief'(illustrated map), engraved by Johannes de Ram and Conraet Decker after designs by the Dutch artists Johannes Verkolje, Pieter van Asch, and Heerman Witmont. Dirck van Bleyswijck (1639-1681), former burgomaster of Delft and its unofficial chronologist, was commissioned by the Delft municipality to produce a detailed city map with additional depictions of important buildings.

    The entire ‘Kaart Figuratief’ measures c. 110 x 126 cm and was first published in 1678. The original is still housed in the municipal museum ‘Het Prinsenhof’ in Delft.
    Here is an image of a print (1729) in original frame:

  4. theodore jankowski


  5. John F

    Random question: I am starting my own blog to share my photography experiences. Do you find it hard or easy to post consistently?

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