Museums Netherlands

A trip too far for Vermeer?

Girl with a Pearl Earring heads to Japan despite previous problems at Kobe museum

Girl with a passport: Should works this important travel?

THE HAGUE. The Mauritshuis in The Hague is lending the Girl with a Pearl Earring to a museum in Japan where another Vermeer masterpiece on loan appears to have suffered. After The Art of Painting returned to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum from Kobe City Museum in 2004, conservators discovered that part of the paint surface had become vulnerable to slight flaking. Environmental conditions in the Kobe gallery during the display were described as “quite problematic”.

The Mauritshuis has now agreed to send the Girl with a Pearl Earring to the Kobe museum in 2012. It is among 50 pictures from the collection that are being toured to raise money for the expansion of the Mauritshuis. Partly because of Tracy Chevalier’s bestselling novel about the painting, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is regarded as the star loan, although there will also be a Rembrandt self-portrait and other major Dutch Golden Age works. The agreement on the Japanese tour was signed in Tokyo in October 2009 with the sponsor, Asahi Shimbun, in the presence of Dutch culture minister Ronald Plasterk.

Unknown to the Mauritshuis in 2009 was the fact that the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s The Art of Painting, regarded as Vermeer’s greatest work, had been found to have suffered on its return from a 2004 trip to Japan. It had been part of an exhibition of Dutch and Flemish painting there. This information only emerged in a catalogue of an exhibition on The Art of Painting organised by the Kunsthistorisches Museum earlier this year (see related article).

Museums are normally reluctant to publicly air problems resulting from loans to other institutions, and the Viennese conservators worded their comments carefully. In a technical chapter in the catalogue, the head of conservation Elke Oberthaler and three colleagues explained: “Between 1999 and 2005, The Art of Painting was transported to various exhibitions at eight venues. Examination following the Japan exhibition of 2004 showed no new losses, but gave the impression that the cupping in the blue-green drapery had become more pronounced.” Cupping is the slight curving of small paint areas where there is craquelure, and this can eventually result in flaking.

Conservation report

The conservators went on to explain: “As the recordings from the accompanying data-logger indicated, the climate conditions during the shipments had been generally stable due to the sufficient thermal insulation of the crate, however [conditions] turned out to have been quite problematic during the exhibition at the second venue, mainly due to daily temperature fluctuations, reaching up to eight degrees celsius.” The unnamed venue was the Kobe City Museum.

Daily fluctuations in relative humidity levels of up to 20% were reduced in the microclimate display box housing The Art of Painting in the gallery, keeping levels around the painting to 54% to 58%. However, “temperature fluctuations could naturally not be minimised”.

The conservators added that in addition to the temperature changes at the Japanese venue, the cupping “could also be seen in context with the cumulative stress exerted on the work of art during previous trips”.

They concluded: “Considering the diminutive scale of the paint flaking, it was difficult to substantiate any condition changes due to the lack of photographic documentation with sufficient resolution.”

Yasumasa Oka, the chief curator of the Kobe City Museum, said: “I do not acknowledge the fact of the rapid temperature rise in the exhibition room”, or that it amounted to eight degrees. “A temperature fluctuation in our museum was not causally related to a possible danger to The Art of Painting,” he said.

Karl Schütz, the director of paintings at the Kunsthistor­isches Museum, has written to the Kobe City Museum saying: “An inspection of the painting following the exhibition did not reveal any damage.” It is true that no paint losses were detected, but his conservators did feel that cupping was more pronounced after the Kobe loan.

Staying put

The Art of Painting is unlikely to travel again because of conservation concerns. A request by the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum to borrow it for four months in 2008 for a fee of €500,000 had initially been agreed, but this was overruled by the Austrian minister of culture on advice from conservators.

Although environmental conditions at the Kobe City Museum may well have been improved in the past few years and the Girl with a Pearl Earring is a less fragile painting, the 2004 experience does raise questions.

Last year Mauritshuis staff visited the Kobe museum, which signed a contract on environmental standards for the loan. Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Mauritshuis, is “entirely satisfied” with the agreement. Although the loan fee is undisclosed, it will go towards the cost of the Dutch museum’s €22m extension, which is due to be completed in 2014. The 50 Mauritshuis paintings will initially go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (July to September 2012) and then Kobe (October to December 2012), with a slightly smaller group of works later touring several US venues. This will be while the Mauritshuis is temporarily closed. Gordenker describes the paintings as “ambassadors” for the museum.


Is the Mauritshuis taking a risk by loaning its most famous work to the Kobe City Museum? (Photo: flickr user oriana.italy)
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