A painting can normally be removed from a wall in less than five minutes, but here the process can take over an hour. Time seems to stand still when you are handling a valuable work of art: there is no rushing. The exhibition room, empty of people, becomes a type of operating theatre where a Sorolla is lying on the table. It has just been taken off the wall where it usually hangs at the Carmen Thyssen museum in Malaga because it is going on a trip. For the first time, a work from this collection is crossing the Atlantic to go on temporary display at a museum in the USA. This international loan will enhance the Thyssen Malaga's visibility abroad and expand its network of collaborations on the art circuit.
The painting, Patio de la Casa Sorolla (1917), will form part of an exhibition called Joaquín Sorolla y Esteban Vicente: A la luz del jardín, at the Parrish Art Museum, in the exclusive New York Hamptons, from 7 August to 16 October. It is a lovely piece, created in Sorolla's maturity, when he was already a grandfather, in which he returns to a recurrent theme in his work: the light and colours of the garden he designed at his home in Madrid. It is representative of the artist's style and technique, with that characteristic feature of his paintings: thick layers of oil paint that crack over time. It is the natural ageing process and no intervention is needed, although it is monitored occasionally to ensure there has been no loss of colour.
Every loan, no matter where its destination, triggers a complex protocol which begins months beforehand in the Registration Department and ends in the room where we are at the moment. Francisco Zambrana, of Quibla Restaura, who is responsible for looking after the museum's collection, checks the condition of the painting as he compares it with the 'hot spots' shown on its conservation report. In a photograph of the painting, several circles mark the areas where the wrinkles are most intense. Zambrana, accompanied by director Lourdes Moreno, inspects them one by one with the help of a powerful spotlight.
He examines the painting and also the frame, making notes about any losses on a sheet of paper. He will repeat the procedure when the picture comes home, to make sure it is in the same condition as when it left. The document, signed by the restorer and the museum, is then placed inside the box in which the painting will travel to Madrid. There, it will join other works from the city's Sorolla Museum and together they will set off for New York, where conservators at the Parrish Art Museum will once again check that the cracks in the paint have remained stable.
The whole process is carried out with precision and delicacy, slowly, with no brusque movements, wearing gloves and white lab coats. The moment when the work of art is moved for packing is the most sensitive time. Professionals from the Tti company, which specialises in transporting works of art, have come from Madrid specifically for this purpose. They have brought a wooden box which has been made to measure for 'Patio de la Casa Sorolla'. It is of robust construction, with the interior reinforced to protect against knocks, is fireproof, has thermal insulation and protection against humidity. The painting will not be removed from the box for at least 24 hours after arriving in New York, which is the time the canvas needs to acclimatise to its new surroundings.
Two people place the picture on special wrapping paper. But something is wrong: the back of the painting sticks to it. The conservator sees that there are traces of sticky tape on the anchoring system which fixes it to the wall, probably from an earlier move. Zambrana removes it with cotton wool soaked in alcohol and writes this on the conservation report which is going to the USA. He does this for two reasons: for accuracy, and so it can be removed completely when the piece returns to Malaga. After waiting a few minutes for the alcohol to evaporate, the painting is wrapped and placed in its box which is then sealed and marked with a code. That code is important: the number is also on the report inside the box and shows that the package has not been opened during the journey.
This will be the first time a work of art from the Carmen Thyssen Museum has gone to the US, but it is not the first to be loaned. It is added to a long list of works loaned to institutions in Spain and Europe: 126 have been requested since the museum opened. "And we are continually receiving more requests, there is a growing interest," says Lourdes Moreno. That growth is exponential. As Clara Ruiz, who runs the Registration Department, explains, "the more a piece travels, the better it becomes known and the more it appears in the catalogues, which is where curators of exhibitions see it". And there is an obvious aspect, too: "If you don't loan paintings to other people, they won't loan them to you," she says.
Every request is studied carefully to evaluate its credentials, the security, the availability of the work and the opportunity: the Thyssen can't leave its exhibition rooms empty. But the baroness is "generous" with her collection, says Ruiz. "We don't say no unless it is for a very good reason".
Once the management and the Board of Trustees have given the go-ahead, documents start to be exchanged to set out the conditions for the insurance and the transport. In this case, a special temporary export certificate has to be obtained from the Ministry of Culture. The museum that applies for the loan covers the costs.
So far this year the Museum has received six requests for loans, one fewer than in 2019, before the pandemic. Most have been from elsewhere in Spain and only two were from abroad: this one from New York and one currently being considered from Germany.
An hour and a half after being taken off the wall, Patio de la Casa Sorolla sets off on its journey. It is 10.05am and the first visitors are starting to tour the exhibition rooms with the works by 19th century Spanish artists in which the Thyssen specialises. They will not be able to see this particular work by Sorolla, but a poster with a photo explains why: 'This work is currently on temporary loan for the exhibition 'Joaquín Sorolla y Esteban Vicente: A la luz del jardín', at the Parrish Art Museum, USA from 7 August to 16 October', it says.
The painting Retrato de Jacqueline con gola, from the collection at the Picasso Museum in Malaga (MPM), is currently on display in Basel, Switzerland. And 30 prints from the illustrated book 'Las metamorfosis' by Ovidio, which are normally kept in the house where Picasso was born, are at the Meet You Museum in Shanghai (China). International loans are resuming after the pandemic, but in a different way. The coronavirus crisis, geopolitical tensions and their economic effects have transformed our world, and museums are no exception.
"We are experiencing a structural change," says the director of the Picasso Museum, José Lebrero. "The pandemic has shown us that things can be done differently," adds Clara Ruiz, who runs the Registration Department at the Carmen Thyssen Museum.
For example, a courier, the person who accompanies valuable works of art from their origin to their destination is now only used for long trips and is often shared by several museums (as was the case with the works by Sorolla which are on their way to New York).
Remote supervision via videocalls and monitoring with new technological tools have taken over from the old methods. And, at the same time, printed documentation has been replaced by digital versions.
"Things have improved," says Laura Gaviño, who runs the Registration Department at the house where Picasso was born.
There is growing concern over the carbon footprint of each journey and about everything that preventive conservation entails. "People are concerned about energy efficiency," says Ruiz. "We think twice about whether it is necessary to request 40 works from 40 different places," says Lebrero. And, except in the case of extremely valuable works, there is more flexibility about combining journeys. "People now realise that transport from Malaga can stop off in Barcelona to pick up another piece and carry on to Paris," explains Gaviño.
Art galleries and museums are still suffering the financial consequences of the pandemic and are cutting budgets available to request loans. Every loan involves major investment, not only because of the high cost of insurance, but also for the expense of the specialist transport needed. However, there are more exhibitions of their own works or, at least those from museums in the same country.
The context of a war in Europe makes things even more complicated. Despite this complicated situation, museums in Malaga expect more loans to take place in 2023 thanks to Picasso. The 50th anniversary of his death has increased the number of requests for loans from the museum and his birthplace. The latter has works on loan in China and Paris until early next year and the MPM has received requests from Lyon in France, La Coruña, Madrid, Bilbao and even the US.