Posts Tagged ‘Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum’

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.

A new location for Vermeer’s Girl with a Glass of Wine

November 27th, 2009

Masterpieces of the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum from antiquity to the contemporary

12 July 2009 – 31 December 2012

Due to the complete renovation of the  Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in the coming years, the most important works will be on view in the nearby Knight’s Hall of Burg Dankwarderod, including Vermeer’s Girl with a Glass of Wine. The exhibition architecture is designed to make an overview over the different art historical eras, from antiquity to contemporary art possible.

see the museum website notice (in Germans only):


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.