When I heard about the NG of Scotland's project of touring Titian's canonical mythology- Diana and Actaeon, in America, I immediately thought of the late Francis Haskell's book The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition, published at the start of the decade. That was the name Haskell gave to permanent collections temporarily depleted by loans to exhibitions. In a memorable foreword, Haskell described a world shrunk by travel; the author envisaged airlines crowded with planes carrying precious artistic cargoes of Titians, Velasquezes, Poussins and others. The serious point about the increase in shows and the concomitant risk to art was made with humour and eloquence.
Almost a decade later I wonder what Haskell would be saying about the new trend, initiated by the Louvre in 2007, of lending paintings for a year or more to museums like the High and others? Haskell was voicing his concern about the increased traffic in art at a time when museums were not feeling the pinch as much as they are today. I mean, back in 2001, would you ever have thought that the Getty, the Getty, mark you, would cut their acquisition budget? I still couldn't believe that when I read it. A sign of the times!
Today, the ephemeral museum is much more of a reality. If a masterpiece- or several works of art- can reside in museums on the other side of the world for 6 months or more, then its home collection cannot be regarded as permanent, not on your life. I don't want to launch into a tirade about lending art outside the U.K. I'm glad that the folks who'll visit the museums will get the chance to appreciate the beauty and genius of these pictures; but several things should be borne in mind as they go off on their merry way.
1. As the Art Newspaper gently intimates: it's surprising that the Titians are leaving so soon after they came into public ownership. According to the article, the scheme was hatched in 2008 during the campaign to save the Titians, so this global tour must have been on the cards for a long time. I also agree with the M.P. Ian Davidson who says "it's bizarre when such a large amount of public and lottery money was raised to keep the painting in Britain."
2. The 'Diana and Actaeon' isn't in perfect condition. As the NG of Scotland says in the catalogue for 'The Age of Titian' exhibition of Venetian art in Scottish collections of 2005, there is craquelure in the section by Actaeon's hand; it's visible to the naked eye, even in reproductions. I know it's been restored, but the problems of restoration aside, taking it in and out of crates can't be good for the picture's health.
3. This sets a dangerous precedent for U.K. museums. After this more cash-strapped museums are inevitably going to follow this extended loan period arrangement. I know the NG of Scotland is forced to this cause of action because of the huge debt built up during the Titian campaign, but there are risks in touring old master art on this scale. I'm sure Francis Haskell would have agreed.
All of these thoughts will be passing through my mind when I look at the Titians in the NG London, in a few weeks time. I shall drink them in before they start their long trek north and west, an itinerary comprising Aberdeen, Glasgow, Dundee, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Houston, Cardiff etc.