Special, low-floor art transport trailers equipped with climate control and air suspension systems are a rare commodity: there are just three in the whole of Europe. They allow huge works of art (up to 335 cm high) to be transported vertically. And that was just what was needed in the case of American artist Julian Schnabel’s 1981 painting, The Unexpected Death of Blinky Palermo in the Tropics. In its 446 x 29 x 319 cm crate, it just fitted into the trailer.
Recognizing the importance of the event for Julian Schnabel and Museo Correr, the Stedelijk Museum had gone to every length to cooperate on the artist’s Venice retrospective, Julian Schnabel. Permanently Becoming and the Architecture of Seeing (4 June – 27 November 2011).
Paintings are always transported on their stretchers if size permits. If not, they are occasionally rolled up for transportation, but this always entails a risk of damage. The precarious condition of this particular painting, done on velvet, meant that it had to be transported vertically on its stretcher.
First, the rear of the work was covered by a special backing board (made of 5 mm thick polypropylene hollow core sheeting). Then the space between the support and the backing board was filled up completely with foam planks (5 cm thick Ethafoam), mounted onto the backing board using nylon book screws. This produced a vacuum which ensured maximum immobilization of the painting in transit. Finally, the work was mounted in a protective wooden transit frame and wrapped in plastic sheeting for additional protection.
The tailor-made wooden crate was rendered watertight by a layer of gloss paint and a rubber seal on the lid. Travel crates made by the Stedelijk in-house are always equipped with shock absorbers in the corners. So the painting was well packaged for its long and complicated journey to Venice.
Once the crate was unloaded on the outskirts of Venice, it would still have to be maneuvered through the narrow pedestrian streets of the town to its final destination. To achieve this, Marc Bongaarts – the Stedelijk’s Head of Technical Conservation Art Handling – devised an innovative kind of light-weight transportation system. This consisted of four one-sided aluminum supporting arms, capable of adjustment to different widths. These were equipped with heavy swiveling castors fitted with pneumatic tires to absorb shocks and vibration. Four M10 bolts were used to mount the supporting arms onto the crate and the arms were fastened together at the bottom by a thick aluminum strip. This ensured that the case could turn on its own axis and pass smoothly over the uneven surface of the Venetian streets.
After a journey of around 1350 kilometers, the case arrived on the quayside at the Tronchetto boat terminal, Venice’s freight transshipment point. Amid fruit and vegetable boats and countless artists bringing their work to the Biennale, the Schnabel was carefully winched out of the truck and loaded onto the largest freighter available in Venice. The vessel then proceeded to the Piazza San Marco, where a crane was used to winch the case up into the air before the astonished eyes of crowds of tourists. With the case suspended just over the boat deck, Marc and his Italian assistants mounted the transportation system onto it. The painting was now ready for the final leg of its journey.
The transportation system was designed in such a way that the width between the casters could be varied. Even in the narrowest position, for example on the landing stage, the case stood stably upright. The system permitted the Schnabel to be wheeled safely to the Museo Carrer, guarded on each side by an escort of no fewer than eight people. At the foot of the museum’s long staircase, the painting was removed from the case and carried up the stairs, still packed in its transit frame and plastic sheet wrappings, in the presence of Julian Schnabel himself.
Once the work had arrived in the gallery, its condition was checked by two restorers (Louise Wijnberg from the Stedelijk and a restorer from the Museo Correr), who prepared a joint condition report. The painting was found to have suffered no ill effects and looked magnificent in its prominent position by the main entrance – ample reward for the time and trouble that Marc and his department had taken to ensure a flawless transport operation.
At the end of the exhibition, the painting was successfully repackaged and brought back to the Stedelijk Museum by the same method.