Major restoration programme for Mondrian paintings

Gemeentemuseum begins work on unrivalled collection

the hague. The Gemeente­museum in the Hague has commenced an extensive restoration programme on its world-renowned Mondrian collection, after a comprehensive examination of the paintings in 2007 revealed a number to be in a deteriorating condition. With 169 paintings, the museum has the world’s largest Mondrian collection, the result of two bequests from his biggest and earliest patron, Salomon Slijper, and his lifelong friend, Albert van den Briel. Many of the works date from the artist’s early career before his move from landscapes to abstraction, with around 20 examples of the linear style for which he is best known.

Funds of €500,000 for the project were given by the Dutch state lottery BankGiro. It is being headed by Hans Janssen, the museum’s chief conservator, who said that many of the paintings will be worked on for the first time since leaving the artist’s studio. “Our study showed around 20 of the 169 paintings have to be treated urgently, another 60 within two years and 50 more within five years,” he said. Problems vary from issues with the frames and the canvases to lifting layers of paint and old varnishes.

“Considering how little intervention it has received up until now, the condition of the collection is remarkably good,” said Mr Janssen, adding that a lot of the issues actually relate to the original preparation of the works. “Many of the canvases were stretched by Mondrian himself and were fixed with iron nails, which are rusting, while sometimes he used too much fixative in the paint, making it brittle.” Leading Mondrian scholar Joop Joosten has been working closely with the project. “From an art historical perspective, it is extremely thrilling for what can be learned about Mondrian’s techniques,” said Mr Janssen.

In 1998 the museum attracted criticism for its purchase of Mondrian’s unfinished last work, the monumental Victory Boogie-Woogie, 1944, for which the Dutch government paid $40m. However, it looked less expensive after last year’s Yves Saint Laurent sale, when a small lined work from 1922 made $21.6m, said Mr Janssen.

“Victory Boogie-Woogie will never be loaned, nor will several other paintings from the collection. We are very hesitant with some [works], generally because the condition of the paint is too fragile,” said Mr Janssen, although he was keen to dispel the inference in recent press reports that the museum has recently grounded a large part of the collection worn out from excessive travel. He tentatively suggested that the restoration project may see more works released for loan. “Our conservators are currently working on a painting that in the past has never been loaned, and have said that when they are finished, it will now be possible for it to travel, but we are always cautious,” he added. “Our policies are no different from any other international museum with regard to an important and fragile collection but still, we have around 40 paintings that without reservation are ready for transport and would be loaned without hesitation.”

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