For art world junkies, access to the secret corners of museums can be an addictive substance. On the few behind the scenes tours I’ve been on, the restoration areas have always been a highlight. Part art gallery, part ER—these rooms are where greatness goes to get a second, and sometimes third or fourth, life. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has turned the restoration of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Bedroom (pictured) into a teachable and entertaining moment through a new blog that will trace the process of the restoration as part of an exhibition to be called Bedroom Secrets: Restoration of a Masterpiece.
Van Gogh painted The Bedroom while living in Arles in the home now known as “The Yellow House.” “When I saw my canvases again after my illness,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1889, “what seemed to me the best was The Bedroom.” Van Gogh had just been hospitalized for the infamous bout of depression that had led him to mutilate his own ear. The Bedroom had already suffered a great deal as well from the dampness of Van Gogh’s abode. Vincent pasted newspapers over its surface and pleaded with Theo to reline the canvas to reinforce it before the image was damaged entirely. Theo finally agreed, but only after Vincent agreed to paint two more versions of The Bedroom as a safety measure. All three versions still exist, but experts agree that the version at The Van Gogh Museum is the original.
As we walk through art museums and enjoy the works of the past, we often take for granted the hard work and expertise required to keep these works in presentable shape not only for today, but for tomorrow as well. The curators and restorers promise to continue blogging with every little detail of the process, allowing the whole world into their Bedroom secrets and to marvel at their magical technique. I personally plan to follow along in real time as the secrets of the painting, and the restorers, unfold.
It’s encouraging to watch mainstream museums embrace social media technology such as blogging. I’ve always felt that there as an audience for insider knowledge at museums. Every time I hear a curator introduce an exhibition at a press preview, I wish someone could capture those words and bring them to the public. Audio tours always aim low and, tragically, succeed in giving only a glimpse of the knowledge available. A blog that allowed curators to share their knowledge as well as their sparkling personalities (a pleasant bonus during many a press preview) could open museum doors to a whole new and, potentially, younger audience. Perhaps Bedroom Secrets is the beginning of the end of a long-held secret—museums are living things, full of mysteries, people, and fun.