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Wallraf-Richartz-Museum celebrates sesquicentennial with exhibition of hidden treasures
A woman looks at a painting in Cologne. The special exhibition 'Panopticon - The Secret Treasures of the Wallraf' runs from 21 October 2011 until 22 January 2012 at the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne. EPA/OLIVERBERG.

COLOGNE.- 150 years ago the collection of Ferdinand Franz Wallraf found a home in its first museum building. Since then it has been divided up, diminished, added to, and moved around a number of times. Like many other museums around the world, the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud has a problem: it can only put a relatively small proportion of its treasures on display at any one time. Even today, about three-quarters of the paintings ‘enjoy’ a Sleeping Beauty existence in the depository, a place only accessible to a privileged few.

To mark the museum's sesquicentennial, it would like to show a little more of what they have. And so they had the idea of exhibiting the ‘hidden’ items under the title ‘Panopticon’. This word is derived from the Greek ‘pan’ (all) and ‘optikós’ (seeing), and has mostly been used in English to describe a circular prison where one warder could ‘see all’ the prisoners. But they have nothing so forbidding. They just want you to ‘see all’ the art. It is true, though, that the pictures may feel somewhat imprisoned: the 500 or so items have to be packed pretty closely together...

The many functions of the depository are explained in the panel texts.

Behind Closed Doors
Like most museums, the Wallraf has a depository – a storehouse for paintings and sculptures not on display. There is a separate depository for the graphics collection, housing another 75,000 or so works on paper, in particular prints, drawings and book illustrations. This separation is necessitated by the different climatic conditions required.

The paintings depository is kept under lock and key and protected by a variety of security devices. For behind its closed doors, on pull-out racks and shelves, three quarters of the museum’s stock of paintings are waiting to be exhibited, restored, or loaned. The fittings are purely practical. The racks, which are almost six metres high, are arranged in echelon one behind the other, and can be pulled out as required.

As an important part of the museum, the depository guarantees first and foremost the appropriate storage of works not on display. It provides above all a pool of substitute works which can be used to fill gaps in the gallery when paintings are on loan, being examined or being restored. All the treasures in the depository are in principle ‘equal’. On closer inspection, though, it becomes clear that alongside paintings that hang in the gallery when required are others which never see the light of day. These have found their way into the depository for various reasons. Some are no longer in tune with the taste of the age, others are in poor condition, while some have even turned out to be fakes.

Alongside paintings that can be indubitably attributed to a particular artist, the depository also contains fakes. Some of these arrived at the Wallraf as part of larger collections, and were only unmasked after they got here. Some fakes are easier to spot than others. One first step is the stylistic examination of a painting. This involves comparing the suspect work with similar paintings by the artist in question, and paying attention to brushwork, coloration and other specific features. To back up this ‘style critique’, technical investigations are performed. Do the materials, such as canvas and paints, correspond to those customarily used by the artist? Is there an underdrawing? If so, would we expect one from this artist? Only when questions like these are settled can the genuineness of a picture be accepted or rejected.

One example from our depository is the Wheatsheaf painting once attributed to Vincent van Gogh. In 1949 it was purchased as an allegedly genuine van Gogh. An expert report was commissioned to prove the authenticity. The result of the examination was beyond doubt: the picture is a fake. Now you will quite justifiably ask why the picture is still with the museum. Well, after a long dispute, the dealer refused to accept the expert opinion. And so the painting remained in the depository as an unmasked fake, was given a simple frame, and can at least be used to train the eye to spot differences in quality.

The Wallraf has its own art-technology and conservation department. As its responsibilities are very extensive, some paintings have to wait a long time before being restored. In this exhibition you will see restored and non-restored paintings side by side.

Many of the works in the museum’s collection have attained a ripe old age, and the centuries have not left them totally unscathed. Climatic changes, careless handling in the past and natural aging are some of the reasons why paintings suffer damage. When and whether a work is restored depends on its importance for the collection. In ‘prominent’ cases grants may be available. This is why pictures by lesser-known artists may be in the depository: they have to wait longer before being restored.

One example of a painting in a poor state of preservation is ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Maerten van Heemskerck, a panel nearly 500 years old. An earlier overpainting was removed after 1941, with the result that the considerable damage to the paint layer, formerly hidden, was revealed very clearly, and very irritating it is too. This damage can be seen in particular along the joins between the three boards comprising the panel on which the picture is painted.

Why are some paintings not exhibited? Lack of space is not always the reason. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have a frame. Possibly the frame is no longer intact, having been damaged while in the possession of its previous owner, or during
rehanging, or in transit, or else it simply fell apart with old age.

But that means the frame too has to be restored, and this is a time-consuming and expensive business. And since paintings have priority in the conservation workshop, pictures are still confined to the depository simply because they have no appropriate frame.

The Right Frame
It goes without saying that a painting belongs in a frame. In the Middle Ages, the frame was often indeed part of the painted panel. It protects a picture from damage, surrounding and stabilizing it. If we look on the reverse, we will also see that the hook by which the picture is hung on the wall is also attached to the frame.

Frames are chosen to match the pictures. There are rectangular, square and oval frames, with or without a mat or mount. Frames can be plain, gilt, ornamented, large or small, broad or narrow. Often frames are inconspicuous, ‘retiring’ behind the artwork.

But what frame is right for what picture? The Wallraf attaches great importance to the original purpose for which the picture was exhibited. Thus some paintings in the museum, in an endeavour for authenticity, were re-framed using well-preserved frames
contemporaneous with the picture. Such frames have since been replaced as inappropriate, but are kept in the depository for purposes of documentation.

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