Art

Japanese custodians of French 'Liberty'

by Mariko Kawaguchi

On the occasion of French President Jacques Chirac’s visit to Japan in 1996, an exchange of national treasures was agreed upon for the 1998-1999 “Year of France in Japan.” Following this agreement, Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century 2-meter wooden bodhisattva from Nara’s Horyuji Temple, was sent to France in 1997 for a one-month exhibition at the Louvre Museum. After considering the Greek marble “Victoire (The Winged Victory)” from Samothrace, and the 19th-century Romantic masterpiece ‘La Liberte guidant le peuple (Liberty Guiding the People),” France finally decided on the latter to be sent to Japan in reciprocation.

The famous “Liberty” painting (also known as “July 28”) by Delacroix is currently being displayed at Ueno’s Tokyo National Museum until March 28. The French masterpiece, as well as other paintings by Japanese painters of Delacroix’s time, including Watanabe Kazan and Utagawa Hiroshige, are attracting about a million visitors a day.

The show’s success has kept the people backstage busy — people like Nobuyuki Kanba, head of TNM’s conservation department. You could say Kanba is the main stagehand of the Japanese show. Even after the installation last month, he is still working diligently to ensure the safety of the priceless piece. “My mind can’t rest until the painting goes back home safely,” he said.

It hasn’t been easy. The project became a reality only a few months ago. “Until they finally gave us the go-ahead last summer, the Louvre had been reluctant to lend out its masterpiece, for fear of possible damage,” Kanba said.

Indeed, transporting the fragile and huge (2.6 x 3.25 meters) painting seemed to be riddled with risks such as vibration, warping, freezing, condensation and so on. The Louvre formed a special committee to closely examine the task.

The result was a damage-proof cocoon comprising three special enclosures. The first box, made of thick plywood and containing thick urethane, protected the work from vibration. After being sealed in a waterproof sheet, the painting was put in the first box, and then into a second one equipped with a pressure gauge. The final encasement was an anti-freezing duralumin box with a heating system that maintained a constant temperature of 20 C. On Feb. 19, the painting arrived at Narita International Airport in an Airbus Industrie A300-600ST Beluga, the world’s largest cargo jet. (In case you were wondering, it cost 10 million yen for the painting to fly first class.) After its arrival at the TNM, it remained untouched for two days in order for it to adapt slowly to the new climate.

The painting was then moved to the showcase Kanba had planned for it, suspended by iron wires at four points with two supports from behind. The installation took about two hours. “I wish we had more time for the preparation,” Kanba said, since it was the first time to host such an important work of art. The result of his labors, however, would seem to be a success.

In the special display room on the museum’s first floor, the temperature and the humidity are set at a constant 19 C and 50 percent humidity, the same environment it enjoys in Paris. For the lighting, 12 fluorescent, ultraviolet-free lights are used to accentuate the painting’s colors and contrasts.

The showcase’s facade is made of thick yet highly transparent vitrified glass. Its interior is covered with a special shatterproof sheet of glass. At night, the case is covered with a polyurethane curtain to protect the painting against cooler temperatures. Most importantly the case rests on an antiseismic device, since the French were very concerned about the earthquakes in Japan. The whole showcase came to 12 million yen.

For visibility, the large exhibition room has three different levels so people can see the painting despite the crowds. “It seems that we can see the painting better here than at the Louvre,” said David Cueco Aguilella, a freelance painting restorer who has been working on the project for several months. “At home, it hangs on a wall among so many great paintings that our eyes are distracted.”

In Paris, Cueco Aguilella oversaw the painting’s conservation before its journey overseas, restoring some parts and changing its old, supposedly original, frame to a new one. He also assisted in the Tokyo installation last month and will return to Japan in late March to help bring the painting back home.

One of most important works of Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), the painting portrays the famous barricade during Paris’ three-day revolt against Charles X in July 1830, symbolically lead by Liberty herself holding the tricolor high amid the hail of bullets. Although its Romantic style displeased the art establishment when it first appeared in 1831 (Liberty, depicted as a bare-breasted young woman wearing a working-class cap, was considered extremely vulgar by some), the painting came to represent the “sacred symbol of reconciliation between liberty and the French republic,” explained Vincent Pomarede, the Louvre’s chief painting curator. The painting is extremely well known since it appears on school textbooks, on stamps and also on the 100 franc note.

“Basically, this will be its last trip,” Pomarede said. (It had been to Poland and in the former USSR in 1956, and in the U.S. in 1975.) “It is a very important painting for us so we hope it will never leave France.”