Artwatch UK

Attacked Poussins at the National Gallery

20th July 2011

As Donald Rumsfeld might have said, in even the best and most conscientiously administered museums and galleries, “incidents happen”. When the incident is an assault on a work of art, museums have traditionally sought to play down the event for (legitimate) fear of triggering copycat attacks. In an age where every other museum visitor owns a mobile phone with a camera, that is no longer an option. The Observer’s apparently exclusive report on the spray-paint attack on two Poussin paintings at the National Gallery on Saturday generated instant and world-wide coverage (see Fig. 1). Some British art commentators unhelpfully responded by spelling out how vulnerable paintings are at such locations in the National Gallery. One over-heated newspaper art critic blogger effectively commended the location in the gallery to would-be vandals wishing for a quick unobtrusive exit. A blogger from a west end gallery then echoed and highlighted this vulnerability with a diagram showing the gallery layout and the warding point. The art historian and Poussin specialist, David Packwood, responded more judiciously on his blog Art History Today and pointed out that:

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this painting [“The Adoration of the Golden Calf”] has been the target of vandals. In 1978, a lunatic slashed the canvas with a knife, and this serious damage resulted in restoration. I’m just wondering if this nutter knew of the earlier attack and wanted to replicate it, albeit with a different weapon.

In a May 1998 visit to the National Gallery we discovered that many paintings had been removed from a wall that bore large water stains in the then new French rooms (see Fig. 4). A phone call to a newspaper established that no word had arrived of the incident (an overnight downpour that had overwhelmed the gutters). Although one blogger reproduced a statement issued by the gallery on last week’s Poussin attack, last September an (accidental) injury to another important religious painting went, so far as we know, un-reported.

The National Gallery is presently reducing warding coverage because of funding cuts and is doing so in an age of growing visitor numbers and declining standards of public behaviour. We understand that the room in which the Poussin attack occurred was unusually busy because of heavy rain last Saturday and that the warder responsible for it was also responsible for the adjacent gallery. It should be said that although there is opposition within the National Gallery to the policy of doubling up the number of rooms warders must supervise, this problem seems to extend beyond the gallery. We learn that the day before the Poussin attack, an artist visitor to the Tate who complained to a warder about people standing in front of paintings while having their photographs taken, was told that this is now allowed because staff cut-backs make it impossible to enforce the gallery’s own rules.

What makes the recent attack a matter of especially acute sensitivity for the National Gallery is the fact that in November an unprecedentedly large group of borrowed Leonardo paintings are due to arrive for a temporary exhibition. As described before, the loan of one of these paintings, the already air-miles rich “The Lady with an Ermine” (see Fig. 2), has been and is being vehemently opposed by leading scholars and conservators in Poland and we have responded to their appeal to help draw international attention to their opposition (see Fig. 3).

We have also recently reported that in the European Union, a great increase in such loans is being sought by restricting insurance cover to the time that paintings are in transit, on the contention that once pictures arrive at their loan destinations, they are as safe as they would be if left undisturbed at home. But, that ignores the risks run during hectic exhibition installations and the even more hectic “de-installations”. Again, as we have reported, it is only three years since the National Gallery’s own Beccafumi panel “Marcia” was dropped and smashed when being removed from a temporary exhibition at the gallery (see Fig. 6). Insurance cover was not involved but the consequence of the accident was that after repair and retouching, the picture and its undamaged sister panel (“Tanaquil”) were not returned to the main galleries but were instead consigned to the gloom of the gallery’s reserve collection which can be accessed by the public for only a few hours each week.

That accident was disclosed on the gallery’s website and, after we covered it in our journal, a copy of a report on the incident and photographs of the smashed painting were made available to us. There was no cover-up, but the damage done is forever. Any movement of a fragile Renaissance panel constitutes a risk. Unnecessary movements constitute unnecessary risks. Unnecessary movements that are made in defiance of the best and most responsible expert curatorial and conservation advice (as with Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine”) constitute reckless and irresponsible risk-taking. To send that painting to London and then to Berlin and then to Madrid would be to triplicate irresponsibility with a jewel of a proud nation’s patrimony.

Notwithstanding the European Union’s madcap money-crazed ambitions to shuttle an ever-increasing stream of artworks around the continent, the continuing risks are fully recognised by the people who insure the works. The already high insurance cost of loans threatens to become higher – and for a chilling actuarial reason. In the context of two Turner paintings that were stolen in 1994 for a princely multi-million pounds ransom by a gang of what the former Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson, described as “particularly nasty Serbs” when loaned by the Tate Gallery to a museum in Germany, the art insurance underwriter, Robert Hiscox, recently admitted to the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne, that:

In insurance underwriting you have to balance your books and there is no way we are getting in enough overall premium income to cover what will one day be an enormous loss when an aeroplane full of valuable art crashes, let alone if it lands on MOMA.” (See Fig. 7.)

ArtWatch has appealed in the past to the authorities not take unnecessary risks with irreplaceable and fragile historic works of art – whatever the profits and temporary benefits. We have yet to be heeded but not many years ago museum conservators’ advice against loaning fragile pictures was acted upon:

Our primary responsibility is to act as the guardians of the paintings we buy or are entrusted with by gift or loan. Masterpieces should not be put at unnecessary risk in the temporary interest of policy (as when the French Government sent the “Mona Lisa” to America and Tokyo, or the Vatican dispatched the Michelangelo “Pietá” to New York), profit, patriotism, scholarship or pleasure… stimulated by increased knowledge of the dangers involved in movement and changes of light and humidity, our attention has been focussed more sharply than ever in the last decades on the vulnerability of works of art.”

That eloquent testimony was published in 1975 in the annual report of…the National Gallery. The example of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” (- see Fig. 8 ) proved prescient: it was disclosed only recently and half a century after the event that the painting had been drenched overnight in an undetected incident when a faulty sprinkler system went off within the otherwise absolutely secure vault of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Incidents really do still happen.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: a photograph by Steven Dear, published in the Observer of July 17, announcing attacks on two Poussin paintings at the National Gallery, including (above) his “Adoration of the Golden calf”.
Above, Fig. 2: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”, which has recently been dispatched abroad from Poland many times in exchange for fees.
Above, Fig. 3: the Appeal to ArtWatch UK from the President of the Krakow Division of the Association of Art Historians.
Above, Fig. 4: The Yves Saint Laurent Room at the National Gallery, London. The room, built with a £1m gift from the YSL fashion house, is available for hire and is described as “an elegant gallery housing a selection of French 17th-century paintings. The opulent colouring of fabric on the walls contributes to the atmospheric setting for a stylish dinner party or canapé reception.” The white marks on the left wall are an approximate indication of the extent of water penetration that occurred during an overnight downpour, shortly after the new gallery that doubles as reception/banqueting room had been completed.
Above, Fig. 5: the only press coverage that accompanied the flooding of the Yves Saint Lauren room at the National Gallery in 1998.
Above, Fig. 6: the National Gallery’s panel painting “Marcia”, by Beccafumi, which was dropped and smashed when being dismantled from a temporary exhibition at the gallery on 21 January 2008.
Above, Fig. 7: a Chinese Airlines Boeing 737-800 which was destroyed by fire shortly after landing in Okinawa on 20 August 2007.
Above, Fig. 8: crowds queuing to see the “Mona Lisa” at the Washington National Gallery in 1963 – from the 1969 memoir “Self-Portrait with Donors” by the Gallery’s former director, John Walker.
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