Between the visible and the invisible - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2022-04-05 • 2022-09-25

Between the visible and the invisible

Study, conservation and restoration in the museum


Iberdrola-Museum Programme

Starting 6 April 2022

Iberdrola has been a member of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum Board since 2001 and contributes to its mission by supporting two of the museum’s essential activities: the conservation and restoration of works of art, and research and dissemination of the knowledge about the collection. With these goals in mind, Iberdrola has been a crucial backer of the Conservation and Restoration Programme for almost a decade, which has made it possible to treat numerous works of art from different periods and a wide variety of artistic techniques.

This exhibition reveals the success of this partnership by bringing together a broad set of pieces that have been the subject of some of the most important restorations the museum has ever undertaken, with a particular emphasis on those treated in the 2021 programme.

The extraordinary efforts of the museum’s Conservation and Restoration Department—which started its work back in 1975—is reflected in the results of the treatments, which can now be discovered by looking at both the works themselves and the documentation accompanying them on the treatments applied and the previous studies performed to determine how to treat them.

Document research and the application of scientific analysis techniques provide crucial information on the material history of each of the works. Ultraviolet light provides data on their surface, infrared reflectography reaches the deeper levels of the paint layer, X-rays reveal structural and constructive aspects and stratigraphic studies further our knowledge of the paint. Oftentimes chemical analyses are also performed to ascertain the nature of the pigments, the additive materials, the binders and the varnishes. Likewise, the fabrics used as a canvas, the wood of the supports and the sculptural materials are also studied.

All of this information requires an interdisciplinary vision which makes it possible to evaluate the state of conservation of the works being studied, diagnose possible pathologies and determine the appropriate treatment. Likewise, it also sheds light on the artist’s modus operandi and thus allows for an analysis of the stylistic and conceptual aspects, which yield valuable information that allows us to do things like date a cultural asset. In this way, the Conservation and Restoration Department partners in both studying works of art and disseminating this knowledge among the public at large and, of course, the scholarly community.

The specificity of the museum's collection—its timespan and the variety of artistic objects it harbours—requires these specialised prior studies and analyses and expert hands capable of applying of wide range of treatments to paintings, altarpieces, polychrome carvings, ivory and wood sculptures, enamelled ceramics, prints and watercolours, which are just some of the techniques and supports shown in this exhibition. They all give an idea of the highly skilled labour required to properly conserve and, if needed, restore the works.

Thus, recognisable paintings in the collection which were restored between 2013 and 2021, such as those by Pere Nicolau, Jan Mandijn, Pieter Fransz de Grebber, Ignacio Zuloaga, Balerdi, Isabel Baquedano and Vicente Ameztoy, are now being displayed from new vantage point which reveals their material history with the conservation and restoration treatments they have been subjected to throughout their history, which are often invisible.

They are joined in this show by those that were treated last year, 2021, including such prominent works as Motherhood (1895) by Ángel Larroque, a sixteenth-century ivory crucifix by an anonymous Italian author—donated by the Larrea Gayarre family and now being shown for the first time—and the emblematic mural Guernica along with two other works by Agustín Ibarrola donated by the painter’s family, which are currently on display in Gallery 32. Other works are less familiar to the public, such as the triptych Plain in Spring (1987) by the painter from San Sebastián Marta Cárdenas, acquired through the contributions of the Friends of the Museum in 2020.

Ángel Larroque (1874-1961)
Maternity, 1895
Oleo in canvas
Donated by Bilbao City Hall in 1924

The decorative arts also have a place in the programme, as shown by a ceramic plate by the pottery from Manises (Valencia) from the early sixteenth century and a rich set of enamels by the brothers Ramiro and Ricardo Arrue.

As usual, works on paper form an important part of the show because of the uniqueness of the support and a variety of techniques used on it (drawing, watercolour, prints, etc.). The exhibition includes such important works as the prints Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé by Paul Gauguin, acquired in 2019; The Martyrdom Saint Catherine (c.1498) by Dürer, donated in 2021, and a watercolour of a costume design by Sonia Delaunay, dating from 1918. Several engravings by Francisco Iturrino and Darío de Regoyos, a set of drawings by Joan González and four photographs by José Ortiz Echagüe complete this heterogeneous and extraordinarily interesting set of works.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
Santa Catalina's martyrdom, c. 1498 (XVIII century print)
Fiber woodcut on laid paper
Private colletion donation (2021)

See more exhibition's images.


Exclusive encounters for Friends of the Museum

In the gallery itself, behind closed doors, the team from the Conservation and Restoration Department will explain the restorations and discoveries made based on the technical analyses that guided the treatments.

All Tuesdays in May at 12.00 noon and 6 pm

Free activity exclusively for Friends of the Museum

Registration starting 6 April 2022


Online lectures (2)

Research for the conservation of old paintings. Two works by Mandijn and Van Dyck

José Luis Merino Gorospe. Old Art Conservator

Conservation of the painting by Vicente Ameztoy at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

María José Ruiz-Ozaita. Head of the Conservation and Restoration Department

Starting in April and May ou our YouTube channel

Iberdrola grants

Every year, the Iberdrola Foundation and the museum announce two grants with the goal of contributing to research and the development of professional skills in the fields of art conservation and restoration.

The extension of the seventh edition of the programme is currently underway, and a new call for applications will be posted on the museum’s website in May.