Posts Tagged ‘Blockbuster art exhibition’

Vermeer Fever: Getting too hot?

January 5th, 2014

Vermeer fever is getting high even in Italy, where the Dutch Master has never been particularly at home (see my post on why Italians don’t really love Vermeer).

In twenty days, 55,000 advanced tickets have already been sold to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Renaissance style Palazzo Fava in Bologna, early 2014. However, not everyone is smiling as much as the 55,000 ticket holders and the exhibition organizer Marco Goldin, who claims that advanced sales like these “have no comparison on a global level.” Alberto Ronchi, the commissioner of cultural affairs of Bologna, is one of the few who’s wearing a frown.

Ronchi, who battles with the economics of his city’s cultural problems on a daily basis, says “there is no cultural project behind these kinds of initiatives.” “It’s just businessmen who rent pictures and shows them around. They tell me many people are coming, but how are they coming? When the long lines in front of Palazzo Fava are gone, what remains for the city of Bologna? Nothing.”

Ronchi estimates the event will cost between whopping 1 to 2 million Euro even though it does demonstrate that “at least some money is circulating, only, it’s being invested this way instead of trying to save Bologna’s existing cultural structure.”

Suspicion about high-flying art exhibitions is not new in Italy. While by now it’s hard to read a negative comment on global crowd pleasers elsewhere, Italian intellectual-journalists routinely deride them for what they see as kowtowing the crowd and wasted resources. Curator-managers are under pressure to turn a new trick to keep museum turnstiles whirling. Too many dubious pictures from private collections bloat the exhibitions, in the search of a pedigree. Mindless crowds get off buses, in line, and back on board scarcely remembering what they came to see to say. This is not to mention the head-spinning insurance costs and the ever-present dangers of shipping irreplaceable works of art over the globe.

I can’t say beforehand if Ronchi will be right or not. But from what I have been able to a gather, the seven Vermeer’s that came to Rome in 2012 have left little more than a few unsold exhibition catalogues on the shelves of the capitol’s book stores which, for some reason unknown to me, still stock art books.

Vermeer going #1

April 17th, 2013

Although most would fault me for the dreadful photograph to the left, it does have the merit of conveying how if often feels to view a Vermeer at a blockbuster exhibition.

As I had promised in a post below to express some of my Vermeer-going experiences, here is one that deals with a Vermeer exhibition that took place a 35-minute walk from my house here in Rome last year. Perhaps a bit whiny for positivists (those who believe anything that promotes art is good…BTW, I don’t) but it is nonetheless an experience that many of us have shared at blockbuster exhibitions.

Considering their Girl with a Wineglass of great value, the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum demanded it be enclosed in an acclimatized case during its Rome sojourn. This meant that the thick protective glass of the box and the glass of the picture’s frame obediently reflected an “EXIT” sign, various overhead spotlights and a nearby gilt-framed De Hooch. There was really no way of eliminating the reflections unless once one stood obliquely to the side of the picture and danced a bit from left to right, the few times room for maneuvering was available.

The picture was so distant and so dimly lit that I was unable to show (off) to a fellow exhibition goer that in the miraculously depicted stained-glass window motif, Vermeer had represented a figure holding a bridle which, according to art historians, is the picture’s iconographical key. Although iconography is not a language that fires my imagination, the three curious ducks under the bridle do but were invisible as well. I shall spare you descriptions of the dots, dashes and flicks Vermeer’s majestic brushing that were impossible to make out.

Having been strapped before an easel and painted  for more than four decades, I feel safe to say that I can usually tell the difference between a painting and a reproduction. And yet, had I not knelt down in front of the Vermeer and seen the glare reveal the irregularities of the canvas weave near the borders of the painting, I would not have sworn that the it was the real Vermeer rather than a state-of-the-art preproduction. At this point, it does not seen whiny to ask why tens thousands of dollars for insurance should be spent and a pictures should undergoe travel risks in order to  exhibit  a picture that people can’t really see.

Mind you, the Anton Ulrich has every  right to protect their painting as they see fit, but paintings are usually better seen than taken on faith.

The dangers and delights of traveling Vermeers

April 15th, 2013

Although after years of Vermeer-going I would love  to take a side once and for all, my feelings about traveling Vermeer exhibitions remains as ambivalent as ever. On one hand, I, and obviously millions of other worthy souls, would have never experienced certain Vermeers had they not been shipped closer to home. On the other hand, expenses and risks exist.

The possibility of a plane carrying the Girl with Pearl Earring to Japan might crash on Siberian permafrost, a terrorist attack  or some other unforeseeable event might occur while the painting is on tour cannot be ruled out. Don’t roll your eyes, an earthquake actually happened while Vermeer’s Geographer was hanging on a Tokyo museum wall and the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter escaped by a few months one of Japan’s greatest national tragedy, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The recently restored painting was, in fact,  headed to Sendai, one of the most damaged cities. The risks of fragile, centuries-old canvas being damaged through handling, climatic jumps or road bumps would appear relatively simple to evaluate, but as you would expect, there is great debate as to what really happens to globe-trotting canvases. It is rumored that some museums have declined reporting damages to loaned artworks. But things can surely go wrong at home as well, whether home be the tiny,  off-the-beaten-track Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum where Vermeer’s Girl with a Wineglass is permanently housed  or the Metropolitan Fortress of Art. The Love Letter was stolen, the Guitar Player was stolen, the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid  was stolen and The Concert stolen and never recovered, all from the museums where the works are permanently housed.

Let’s get back to people who are looking at the paintings. Heads can be counted, what goes on inside them cannot. Is it more desirable that ten out of ten thousand  visitors have life-changing experiences while the others more or less forget and move along to the next blow-out exhibition or is it better if that the ten thousand might have a mildly significant experience but no one gets too riled up? And if just one lone visitor among the millions who have attended the last decades’ Vermeer exhibitions were to receive the inspiration to become the world’s next Vermeer?

In essence,  the problem boils down to opportunity. We must calculate the money spent (usually lots and lots), add to it the risks and compare that sum to the results of a rather bizarre average: the overall quality of visitor experience divided by the quantity of visitor experiences. If this isn’t  a pit of snakes….what is?

One thing is certain, the impossibility of evaluating with any objectivity what goes on inside heads of hundreds of thousands of traveling art exhibition visitors (and the effect that this cumulative experience might have on the common good) is a blessing to those who support the exhibitions (i.e. museums and their staff). It is, instead, a curse to the arguments of those who see in traveling exhibitions more potential for damage than good.

I will follow with a few posts on my variegated Vermeer going experiences hoping to give some color to the gray picture above.

Busting blockbusters?

April 14th, 2013

Although as early as 1930 (Italian Art 1200-1900, London) art exhibitions had begun to generate wide-reaching public acclaim, the term “blockbuster” became associated with special and spectacular exhibitions in a museum or art gallery in the 1980s.

Whether sanctified or demonized, blockbuster art exhibitions are not going to go away any time in the near future and will likewise become increasingly controversial among professionals in the field. Museums claim that despite their high costs and nightmarish organizational logistics, blockbusters bring the uninitiated public closer to the art experience, keep regulars coming back and gather critical finances necessary to keep them running. Detractors, who are routinely accused of snobbery, hold the blockbuster has more to do with fast food than haute cuisine and, in real measurable terms, do not benefit the public: on the contrary. In any case, some specialists have begun to hypothesize that the era of blockbuster shows is coming to an end if not for other than the for fact that the business model on which the are based may be ultimately unsustainable.

Here’s a brief rundown of the principal pros and cons of the blockbuster exhibiton and below a few intersting articles.


1.Blockbuster exhibitions draw an extraordinary number of visitors to art museums and greatly increase public appreciation of art.


1. The success of blockbusters lead to such congested viewing conditions that the visitor’s contact with unfamiliar works of art is actually impoverished. Overcrowding may force museums to limit admission. Blockbusters do not educate but lead to a “dumbing down” of the museum and its message. Artists become celebrities like sport and movie stars.

2. Visitors see many artworks that otherwise they would have never been able to have seen. Blockbusters, which generally display numerous works of art, are the best possible chance to understand a particular artist, group of artists or period in art.

2. Blockbusters discourage the public from actively seeking out art and developing strong individual points of view. Visitors accustomed to blockbusters wait passively for prepackaged experiences to be delivered to their door. Many blockbusters present so many works or art that viewers fall victim to accute exhibition fatigue after the first gallery rooms and thereby neglect considerable parts of the exhibition.

3. Blockbusters create a once in a lifetime, eye opening experiences.

3. Since blockbusters become “unmissable” social events, they increase expectations and lay the groundwork for disappointment. Blockbusters are received as events to be witnessed undermining the notion that art necessitates prolonged contemplation to be fully experienced. The sensationalizing the art exhibition distracts from the nature of the artwork itself.

4. Blockbusters attract new visitors, who then go on to visit the rest of the museum and return.

4. The low quality of viewing experience during blockbusters may actually dissuade repeat visits to the museum. After being fed on blockbuster exhibitions even museum members, who are more connected to museums’ permanent collections than the general public, wind up responding only “blockbuster” stimuli.

5. Blockbusters stimulate scholarly research and produce high quality art publications. Many blockbusters are accompanied by weighty catalogues that contain informative critical essays that are illustrated lavishly with hundreds of state-the-art reproductions.

5. Reliance on high-level sponsorship to finance pricey blockbusters acts as a form of censorship. Because not all themes will appeal to sponsors, the museum cannot afford to stray outside of certain subject boundaries which are acceptable to sponsors. In order to maintain a steady flow of exhibition which viewers come to expect, catalogues must be written by many specialists. This discourages coherent views, original research or the expression of controversial ideas. The great part of blockbusters souvenir catalogues are intelligible only to specialists and some are simply too costly for a substantial part of museum goers.

6. Blockbuster exhibitions allow curators to bring into focus important artists and art movements that have not previously receive sufficient attention.

6. Since many of the works requested art treasures, loans are frequently refused affecting the fundamental thesis of the exhibition even though the exhibition is always presented as a disinterested expression of an argument. Art historians are forced to cultivate business and administration skills as much as art expertise.

7. Blockbusters are able to convince visitors to pay sizable admission fees enabling the museum to improve the rest of its service.

7. The high ticket cost of blockbuster exhibitions penalize individual citizens and especially large families belonging to lower economic classes who could, after all, most benefit from contact with artworks.

8. Blockbusters generate media coverage and attract sponsors raising the profile of the museum. By being associated with global brands, museums receive huge marketing benefits.

8. Spectacular blockbuster successes may persuade public funding bodies to reduce their support. Museum are no longer perceived as custodians and promoters of visual arts culture but cogs in the exhibition-industrial complex. Oppositely, commercial enterprises greatly enhance the prestige of their brand by associating with high-brow cultural organizations.

9. Money earned by blockbusters can be used to conserve precious works of art in permanent collections.

9. Fragile works of art may be damaged or even lost during shipping.

Here are some interesting articles on the subject:

Are blockbuster art exhibitions doing more damage than good?

April 4th, 2013

Click here to read a though provoking article by Blake Gopnik on the current state of temporary art exhibitions. Fundamentally in line with Mr. Gopnik’s take, I wrote him the following email:

Dear Mr. Gopnik,
Thank you for the thoughtful and well written article. A personal experience if I may.


A moment of “calm” during a blockbuster
exhibition. Islooking at pictures this way
really doing any good?

The most memorable Vermeer exhibition I have ever attended was held in Modena Italy (2007), and featured, perhaps, Vermeer’s “worst” work: the National Gallery Lady Seated at the Virginals. Vermeer’s small picture was flanked by Dirck van Baburen’s Procuress (which appears in the background of Vermeer’s composition), a select few Dutch paintings, period instruments similar to those found in Vermeer’s painting, a few pieces of Delft ceramics and silence, a great deal of it. Witnessing one-to-one how Vermeer had transformed the seedy creatures of Baburen’s bordello scene, a few hand-carved wooden instruments, humble ceramic tiles and genre interiors depicted by modest artists, was moving.

The expert choice and physical proximity of the objects exhibited, both humble and lofty, made one another resonate. Obviously, the exhibition did not transform the late Vermeer into a masterwork, but it afforded insight (I would imagine rather inexpensively) not only about how the artist digested the world in which he lived and bizarrely elaborated it in paint, but something about the peculiar artist himself. Thanks to the curator Bert W. Meijer, this exhibition showed me something about the faint gray Lady Seated at the Virginals  that had always escaped me when I encountered her in the halls of National Gallery.

My best,
Jonathan Janson

Vermeer in Italy: the numbers

April 1st, 2013

Having lived and worked in Italy for decades, I was pretty sure that the Vermeer: Il secolo d’oro dell’arte olandese would not likely to set a raging fire among art goers.

The exhibit, with 8 Vermeers (6 authentic by my count), brought in 307.971 visitors. Mind you, that’s not a number to be to be scoffed at, but the show placed fourth in 2012 Italian art exhibitions even though it was by far the largest Vermeer exhibit ever to be held on the peninsula, and it was much publicized to boot.


The 2012 Tokyo leg of the Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis exhibit—with Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring as the absolute star—racked up 758,26 visitors. But Japan, everybody knows, is definitely Vermeer territory and Italians are not lacking in great painters of their own.

As usual , panic artists , 14,000 strong, crowded the final day of the show. On packed days, a pocket-sized painting like to Girl with a Red Hat was for all practical purpose invisible. For my take why Italians don’t quite get this strange artist, scroll down and see post below.

If you are a numbers person, click here to access a sortable table of ALL the Vermeer exhibitions ever held. You won’t find all this information on one page anywhere else.

A lost cause: Vermeer in Italy

March 20th, 2013
Vermeer watching

It is normally not too difficult to calculate the costs of art exhibitions.

It is a bit trickier to calculate their cultural benefits.

Let me take a stab at what may have, and may have not, been gained from the recently closed Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art exhibition held in Rome.

After 8 (?) Vermeers and 48 Dutch seventeenth-century paintings have come and gone from the Eternal City—I happen to live a brisk walk from the Quirinale where the exhibit was staged—my feelings are not good. That is, middle-class Italian museum goers, who know relatively little of Vermeer & co. and as such were the prime target of the exhibition, ahimè, still don’t “get it.”

Setting aside organizational lacunae of the exhibition, there are at least three good reasons why this may be so.

First, Italians are born among and bred on monumental and spectacular works art which are practically ubiquitous. They are blissfully at home with mythological, biblical and historical subject matter and many, sometimes unaware, joust with supreme works of classical art and architecture on a daily basis. For example, just to reach the exhibition, the majority of Romans took a bus or drove their cars (without noticing) either around the Coliseum, through a historic piazza, under a winding Baroque façade or a few yards from colossal Roman statuary.

Once inside the windowless Quirinale, the curious crowds adjusted their eyes and were greeted by small pictures that portray insignificant events—insignificant by anyone’s standard except for those of historians of Dutch Art—which unfold in household environments. There were no unicorns or dragons , heroes or villains, saints or seductresses—nothing even vaguely supernatural, but dollish Dutch women and retiring Dutch men who don’t seem to be doing much of much at all.

Second, although bedecked in fine laces, exquisite satin and pearl jewelry, by Italian standards the Dutch juffers (damsels) on display were not raging beauties. A few visitors confided to me, a bit embarrassed but not really too much, that they were disappointed to discover that Vermeer’s women are homely and have greenish complexions (beauties which populate high Italian painting cannot be counted). In this country, physical beauty and grazia, obsessive concerns since the Renaissance, remain among the most spendable social currencies to this day for both sexes.

Third, most Italians do not identify themselves with their households, or”domesticity”as historians refer to it, the way Northern Europeans and Americans so often do. They don’t much like to tinker or do things at home except to watch television and dine. Sewing, quilt-making, hedging bushes in odd forms, building ships in bottles or even fixing broken things are not popular activities (if at all possible, one always pays someone else to get these kinds of things done). Do-it-yourself U.S.A. mega-stores like Joann’s Craft Center or Home Depot are utterly unthinkable on the Italian soil.

THUS, a good part of the domestic imagery and the exceptional level of craftsmanship which characterize Dutch genre painting falls on deaf ears. And if I had to bet, I would wager that the cultural impact of this “largest-of-all-Vermeer-exhibition-ever-held-in-Italy” was at best marginal. After 20 0r so visits to the exhibition, I encountered no one who had been overwhelmed. After all, the exhibition trailed second place in ticket sales to the concurrent Picasso exhibition in Milan.

The crushing economic crisis did not help.

At least one thing will be remembered. Somehow, the Quirinale and Italian press hammered through the idea that Vermeer’s paintings are special because they were depicted with an inordinate amount of natural ultramarine (powdered lapis lazuli), the most precious and venerated pigments of all times. It is a sin, however, that the pictures by Vermeer on display showed only a scant few small patches of bright blue (the appropriateness of the adjective “bright” is debatable). And if I were to again to accept wagers, this time I would stick my neck out and bet a handsome sum that no more than a handful of art historians would have suspected that (provided they had not known they were by the hand of the Delft master) these passages were painted with natural ultramarine, unless of course, they had brought along under their arms a high-power microscope and knew how to use it.

Let’s be frank—if it’s ultramarine blue that makes paintings special, someone forgot to point out that from the early Renaissance onwards, Italian painting, great and not great, is literally awash with the stuff.

Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have other ideas.

Vermeer’s Geographer: A Multi-Continent Exodus

March 4th, 2011

After the exhibition at the at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Vermeer’s Geographer continues its exodus to Tokyo, Aichi, then further overseas to Wellington, New Zealand and Melbourne, Australia. The Städel Museum in Frankfurt, which is currently closed for full renovation, assures it that all its paintings in the exhibition will be back home for reopening in late 2011 or 2012. More details when available