This is a trip inside a museum: Madrid Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the three vertices of the so-called art triangle (completed by Prado and Reina Sofía), where the collections of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen, who died in 2002, and his wife, Carmen Cervera, are kept. But it is not about taking a tour of the halls where 1,034,941 visitors went through last year, or focusing on its more than 600 artists and about a thousand paintings displayed on its walls. This is a foray into the back room of the Villahermosa palace: a privileged access to some of those spaces that are almost never seen and barely heard, but that, without their work, the museum could not carry out its day-to-day life.
On a miserable morning at the end of January, doors are opened that normally remain closed except for the employees accredited with their cards: those of the restoration department, located in a diaphanous room with several tables to unfold the canvases once disengaged from their frames and a Annex laboratory full of bottles, tools and drawers. On one side, two restaurateurs dressed in white coats and sitting on low stools carefully pass their brushes over St. Mark’s Square in Venice (1723-24), Canaletto’s work, a view of the famous location full of characters and details barely perceptible from a distance, from a cat that walks on a tower to a woman carrying her purchases in a basket. Illuminated by a mixture of the leaden light that enters through a large window and the yellow beams that point from a pair of spotlights to the area where they work, the women cover barely noticeable bald spots in the lower strip of the painting.
The department’s job, as explained by its director, Ubaldo Sedano, is to periodically review the collection to decide which works should undergo a more thorough intervention. “The process is long and complex, because to make a diagnosis it is necessary to study the work in depth,” explains Sedano, who has a team of ten members, including restaurateurs, a chemist, a photographer and two administrative staff. “You have to take into account all the components of the work: the originals and additions, which are what will define the magnitude of the operation.” Of this Canaletto, which has been restored thanks to a sponsorship, the team has discovered that it was painted on a layer of red primer, one of the many colors that have been used as a basis throughout the history of art. Also, that the Venetian artist used a dark camera to capture the perspectives and on them the architectures, in which he made several corrections and repainting. And that the arches of the cathedral of San Marcos were designed with a compass that Canaletto stuck the fresh paint on, leaving a visible hole under the microscope. “This painting had previous restorations,” says restaurateur Marta Palao. “In addition, it was re-outlined and during that process the pictorial layer was burned and there was crushing of fillings. Then it has had several interventions: we know it because there are several layers of varnishes and repaints of different nature in successive phases.”
Although the tasks involved in a restoration are usually developed hidden from the eyes of the spectators, just a couple of weeks after, once the work in the Canaletto, The tables will have changed. Now, two workers return to sit with their eyes glued on a large painting, but this time they do it in view of anyone who passes through the second floor of the museum. Separated by a glass wall of the public that first observes them and then turns to take a selfi, they retouch Vittore Carpaccio’s painting Young gentleman in a landscape. This is the second time that Thyssen offers the possibility of contemplating a live restoration: the first was the Paradise from Tintoretto in 2012, which was done on-site in the hall of entrance of the museum since the size of the work prevented to transport it. On this occasion, unlike what is usually done, it has been preferred to keep the carpaccio in his usual room 11 instead of leaving the empty space during the months that the intervention lasts.
In their task, the restorers gently rub a kind of sticks on the cloth. In an area of the left corner you can already see how the colors of the plants that sprout from the ground shine more than the rest of the elements of the canvas, a composition of around 1505. On both sides of the painting they lean against the wall several reproductions of the work in which the colors are disturbed: these are the radiographs and infrared reflectographs that are made during the previous study of the piece to know more details about its composition and its state. The clicks of the mobiles taking photos and the comments of the public that observes the restorers do not seem to affect their millimeter movements. “When you are focused, you get into your world,” says one of them, Susana Pérez, head of the department. “On the one hand it is true that we are outside our habitat, but on the other hand it is a pleasure to be able to see the reaction of people,” adds the other, Alejandra Martos, who collects her hair in a ponytail. “That strangeness of being exposed is balanced with the pleasure of being able to teach what you do.”
While Pérez and Martos are abstracted from any sound to devote all their attention to the details that must be corrected, one floor below the bustle of several school trips it mixes with the lively talks of families and groups of tourists who walk through it hall entrance where it hangs, already clean and shiny, the Paradise, from Tintoretto. Confused among visitors, a small group of men and women sits in a circle on some portable chairs around Alberto Gamoneda, one of the monitors who collaborate in the education and social action project of EducaThyssen, the museum’s education department.
This area began its journey in parallel to that of Thyssen himself, 25 years ago. Under his umbrella, proposals from different fields that converge in the same meeting point are protected: that of the intersection between art and education. From a few beginnings in which only courses for teachers and schoolchildren were taught, today they have a large number of activities aimed at all types of audiences, which are divided into three categories: formal education; non-formal education and specialized training. With the focus extended to disciplines such as dance, music and literature, they offer projects such as Education and social action laboratory, which organizes meetings with groups with diverse educational needs.
The workshop that Gamoneda teaches today is registered under that heading. The educator’s mission is to work with groups of people at risk of social exclusion to make use of art for the benefit of both the community they generate and each individual that composes it. That is, it is about using art as an excuse to unite and help overcome personal difficulties. “The activity we carry out is called Tailor-made and, as its name indicates, we build it based on the needs, tastes or preferences of the public that comes, ”says the educator, trained as an actor and a great connoisseur of history and art history. Sometimes, it is the groups themselves that prepare the contents of the meeting, free of charge and with a periodicity that depends on each specific case, while other times a process of dialogue with the educator is generated from a work of art that they They choose themselves. This afternoon, around this dynamic, one of the participants (who prefers not to give his name or that of the association to which he belongs) wanted to look at the table Paris street, which artist and anarchist Maximilien Luce painted between 1886 and 1888.
“I would have liked to live that time,” the man starts, under Gamoneda’s watchful eye. “It reminds me of the Paris of the movie Loving Vincent. I think it was a time where he drank a lot at night but the days passed calmly, without stress, ”adds the participant, to whom the educator asks to relate the painting with a song, which was already prepared from home:“Son of the sun, from Mike Oldfield. ” While they play soft music, on mobile, Gamoneda tells them about the monumental reform of Paris undertaken by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century and explains some differences between impressionism and pointillism, both present in Luce’s work. “The revolution of these paintings is that the Impressionists began to portray reality,” he adds. Some ideas are leading to others and end up emerging issues such as stigma or substance use, so known to many of the artists whose works rest today in the Thyssen rooms. “We use the museum as a resource and as a space, as a kind of contemporary agora, away from the consumption spaces,” the educator will explain later. “It’s about creating a mirror to look at, and a place to prioritize the idea that visual culture is accessible to everyone.”
After chatting around Luce’s painting for a while, in a dialectical coming and going between the participants and Gamoneda, the group grabs their chairs and moves to one of the most iconic spaces in the museum, the annex room of Carmen’s collection Cervera where it hangs Mata Mua (Once upon a time), the famous painting that Paul Gauguin made in 1892 during his voluntary exile in Tahiti, a representation of an idyllic landscape with several women around the sculpture of a deity. The fluctuations of the conversation transfer them for a moment to the question of the idealization of the so-called exotic cultures, they return them to the random life of the French painter and in the end they end up posing them in the use of the perspectives as an expressive tool. “What it is about is to make a progressive accompaniment over time, to be in an active and attentive listening to the preferences and needs of the participants and to generate a process profile in the museum,” Gamoneda will summarize. “We do not prioritize historical-artistic content, but what we prioritize is the need of the group and the person on how to use art for their own benefit.”
Before the professionals of the departments of restoration and education begin to work, before even the irruption of the thousands of visitors that pass through these rooms every day, the working day begins for many of the museum’s workers. The clock is not yet nine o’clock when Jesús Pedraza joins his place in the store, a unique space dedicated to the merchandising exclusive around the collections and samples that the institution hosts. Dressed in rigorous black, the manager must verify that everything is in order before the client processions are triggered. When Pedraza accesses the enclosure, the landscaped courtyard that precedes the Villahermosa Palace is populated only by the cleaning staff and the blackbirds that peck among the blades of grass.
In the great hall, the silence that fills the space is suddenly broken by the emergence of security guards, who form a circle to share the first impressions of the morning with an unexpected verve. Half an hour later, a dozen store workers, all women, surround Pedraza to receive the latest instructions before customers begin to enter. Meanwhile, the room guards go to the enclosure to put on the uniform and join their positions and the assembly team finalizes some details in pictures that need small tweaks before opening doors. In the store, the sales team holds a meeting where they review what happened the previous day and plan the budding day.
—A little thing: yesterday, who counted postcards? Asks Pedraza.
These days, the team is on inventory.
—And yesterday a lot of posters were missing…
They are the small difficulties of the day to day in the store, in reality a triple space with a local, the largest, at the entrance of the Palace, another at the end of the temporary exhibition area, also on the ground floor, and the last one with the character of pop up on the second floor. At the same time that Pedraza talks with his team in the main store, some workers disassemble the second location, where they must replace the products of the already closed temporary exhibition Impressionists and photography by those of the later inaugurated Rembrandt and the portrait in Amsterdam, which is also riding this morning. “All our products are designed exclusively for us, in short productions,” explained Ana Cela, the director of this department, who invoices 15% of the museum’s income and that last 2019 closed with sales of 3,284. 180 euros “We seek collaboration with artisans and local suppliers. We like that mix of handmade products inspired by works of art with that patina that gives the design. I think that luxury is currently going there: it consists of having unique products that you can only acquire in certain places ”.
Among the traditional books, catalogs, pencils, tote bags, postcards and keychains that are usually offered in museum gift shops, much more striking and, above all, original objects are glimpsed. Tableware decorated with fragments of two couples of Adam and Eve, which were painted by Hans Baldung Grien and Jan Gossaert. Carpets inspired by the geometries of Iván Kliun. Bracelets whose beads refer to the colors used by Wassily Kandinsky. Watches manufactured in collaboration with the Swatch brand that replicate paintings by Franz Marc or Piet Mondrian. A bag decorated with an abstraction of Willem de Kooning. Wooden brooches reminiscent of the works of Lászlo Moholy-Nagy. Necklaces in the manner of Sonia Delaunay as the ones that this morning brings the jewelry designer in person Helena Rohner: jewels made of thread that can be hung around the neck in various ways and that the craftswoman has created for the museum exclusively.
After passing through the store and chatting with Pedraza, Rohner goes up to the offices to meet Ana Cela and finalize the sale of her necklace. The offices where the director and other store administrators work are located in an annex of the main building, hidden behind a maze of stairs and doors. While most of the gifts that can be purchased in the main store are designed by artisans and companies in collaboration with the Thyssen, those that go on sale in each temporary exhibition, always based on the paintings that are displayed at that time, run by the Galician Carlota Pereiro.
In front of her huge computer screen, the young designer, dressed in a curious tassel sweater, imagines ideas for the future temporary exhibition of Alex Katz, which will open in the month of June. “It’s soon, but we have to get ahead,” sighs Cela, who has sat with her to review the designs. The objects that Pereiro has created for Rembrandt’s show are all of the most unique, focused on details such as the trusses dressed in the characters in the paintings in the sample, which the designer has thought to reproduce in the form of stools. “It has been difficult to get attractive objects for the store, because this exhibition is only portraits of characters, although things have come out,” says Cela, who begins to list: “Stationery, t-shirts, trays, plates, cushions, forks, coasters … ” “Do you know what I can think of?” “Since there are many images of fruits in the portraits, we could make jams …”
At that same time, at ten o’clock in the morning, a security guard approaches the gate that gives access to the museum grounds and opens the gate lock. The hundred people who for a while formed a line on the narrow sidewalk of the Paseo del Prado moves neatly into the palace. It is not long before customers start dripping in the store. Start a new day at the museum. “People don’t come here to buy a souvenir, which we also have, but I think we do something else: gifts,” Cela summarizes about the space she directs. “We have a lot of people who come without going through the exhibition because they come to shop. That happened to us a lot during all past Christmas. ”
In the offices of the Thyssen, built in 2004, different departments coexist from their respective areas to manage the viability of the museum: communication, human resources, strategic development … Within the same structure managed by Ana Cela, the director of the shop, is the publications department, a team of two people in charge of producing catalogs, brochures and room sheets that provide the necessary explanations to the works and their authors. In an office shared with designer Carlota Pereiro, Catalina Garrigues and Ángela Villaverde, these days finalize the catalog of Rembrandt’s exhibition.
After a pile of photomechanical prints placed on the table, these two employees, who landed in the Thyssen in 2010 from private art publishing paths, strive to hunt down the last rabbits before sending the voluminous publication to the printing press. “Rembrandt’s has been a rather complicated catalog because it has many contributions, has more than 20 trials,” says Villaverde. “We have taken about six months and still we always have very fair deadlines. We are already starting to work with the following: Alex Katz ”. The tasks of these two women include commissioning and correcting the texts of the different authors participating in the project, gathering the images and correcting the color tests, performing the printing tests and retouching them… “We work with all the departments of the museum: it is very dynamic, but there are always fires to put out, ”Garrigues laughs.
Due to this constant communication with the different areas of the institution, the publishers are often forced to look for a silence to be able to read the texts or look at the images with due attention. The nearest place, and surely more suitable for doing so, is located just a couple of doors from his office, in the museum library, a long and narrow space full of shelves. This sanctuary of art books, housed in the attic of the Villahermosa Palace, treasures the volumes that were acquired by both the first and second Baron Thyssen to complete the knowledge of the collections they were building. Over the years, titles have been added to add 32,500 volumes. “We are specialized in the movements represented in the collections,” says the head, Soledad Cánovas, who points out that the library users are usually the museum’s restorers and educators, as well as external researchers working on projects related to the museum’s collections. .
Upon returning to the office of the publications department, Garrigues and Villaverde continue to be engrossed in a series of image printing tests, of which they must correct the color. When it comes to any of the works that hang on the walls of the museum, the process is as simple as comparing the painting and its reproduction face to face. When they are borrowed for temporary exhibitions, they are guided by certified color tests. “When artists are not alive and have heirs, they have to deal with copyright, something that sometimes complicates things, although sometimes it is easy… it depends a bit,” says Garrigues, to which Villaverde adds: “Also there are heirs who are very involved in the reproduction of works. A very sound case is Matisse: if you want to publish a work of his you have to send a certified color test to his heirs and they have to endorse it, if not, they do not authorize you to reproduce it … ”. Despite the obstacles, for both of them it is a most rewarding job: “There is no day like another in this office,” they say. “It’s fun and very varied, although sometimes it’s stressful about the delivery dates.”
Art and design direction: Fernando Hernandez
Format: Guiomar of Being
Frontend: Nelly Natalí
Videos: Jaime Casal, Luis Manuel Rivas, Álvaro de la Rúa
Photographs: Jaime Villanueva