It’s no mean feat to transport a 60-year-old wall mural by Picasso halfway across the country, but that was the job that fell to Wellcome Collection’s Poppy Bowers last week…
On 21 May an exhibition of Picasso’s post-war art called Picasso: Peace and Freedom opens at Tate Liverpool and a highlight of the show will be a large-scale Picasso drawing on loan from our very own Wellcome Trust art collection.
Referred to as ‘Bernal’s Picasso’ the work is no ordinary drawing in the traditional sense but then again Picasso was no ordinary artist. During a jubilant dinner party held at the home of crystallographer Dr John Desmond Bernal in Torrington Square in 1950, Picasso stood up, with pencil and crayon in hand and drew a portrait of a man and woman with wings on the wall of the Professor’s sitting room. Years later when the house was assigned for demolition, the section of wall with Picasso’s drawing was removed for preservation. It is this original section of wall, complete with wooden lathes, horsehair and plaster that is the Mural known as Bernal’s Picasso.
Murals are not common objects in this country so the rarity of the medium along with the legendary status of its creator makes this a particularly valuable artwork both in financial and historical terms. Measuring over 2.5 metres wide by 1.5 metres high and weighing nearly half a tonne, the mural is also a substantial object in physical terms. Over 60 years after its creation, I find myself confronted with the nerve-racking pleasure of overseeing the transportation and installation of this work into the Tate Liverpool gallery.
It took a five and a half hour road trip in an air-ride vehicle, a crew of eight men and various pieces of lifting equipment to transport the mural from its home at Wellcome Collection, up the M1 to the surprisingly sunny city of Liverpool. Built as a shipping yard, the Tate Liverpool building and surrounding grounds are well suited to the arrival of large goods so the mural and I were soon whisked up to the 4th floor gallery via a vast industrial lift.
During its lifetime, the mural has been in a series of changing climatic environments meaning that the layers of plaster and wood that make up the fabric of the wall have become separated over time, causing hairline cracks in the surface; an interior wall of a house is not built to be a museum piece after all. Due to this fragile condition of the artwork’s structure, once we delivered the mural into the gallery it was then left in its packaging to sit and acclimatise for several days, in order to prevent any further damage from sudden changes of temperature.
I returned the following week to oversee the team of technicians unpack the piece. After the piece is unwrapped and before it is positioned on display, the artwork must be checked for signs of visible change that may have occurred during its recent journey. I carried out this ‘condition checking’ with a Tate conservator, using documentary photographs taken of the mural as a visual record. This means that the condition of the mural can be monitored throughout its display in Liverpool and a detailed comparison can be made when it eventually returns to Wellcome Collection in September.
The head technician at Tate Liverpool had commissioned the construction of a bespoke display unit to accommodate the mural, and once this had been checked over, the mural was lifted into position by the team of eight art handlers. A few painting touch-ups then ensued as final screws and bolts were inserted to secure the mural and its display frame in place. The Tate curators, technicians and myself all agreed that the mural looked fantastic in its bespoke display window. Once complete there was just enough time for me to pose next to the mural for a press photographer from the Liverpool Echo before running to catch my train back to London.
The mural is positioned alongside paintings and sketches that explore Picasso’s famous dove motif. With its characteristic draughtsmanship and large-scale presence within the gallery space, the mural is sure to be a highlight of the show.
Poppy Bowers is Assistant Exhibitions Co-ordinator at Wellcome Collection.