The room of the Reina Sofía Museum that holds Picasso's famous anti-war mural Guernica looks like a movie set. It would not be a complete surprise to see Steven Spielberg walk in and start supervising the movements of the automated, nine-meter-long by 3.5-meter-high camera that has been purpose-built to analyze the state of the most emblematic artwork of the 20th century.
Funded by Telefónica, this robotic device, mounted on a dolly, moves in front of the painting with a precision of 25 micrometers. Sensors and cameras take millions of super-high-resolution shots that will reveal new, detailed information about Guernica thanks to infrared, ultraviolet and 3D scanning technology.
The robot moves in front of the painting with a precision of 25 micrometers
To avoid any inconvenience for museum visitors, the robot will only work during closing hours, at night and on Tuesday and Sunday afternoons. During the day, everyone will be able to admire a work of art that spent most of its life in exile, much of it at New York's MoMA, before returning to Spain in 1981.
Jorge García Gómez-Tejedor, head of the Reina Sofía's restoration department, explains that this new machine will produce the most comprehensive study to date on the state of Guernica's preservation. When the robot's work is done, the results will allow experts to know more about the state of the various layers of paint, the surface, and even unknown aspects about its development and the materials and techniques used on the mural.
Reina Sofía director Manuel Borja-Villel notes that the last X-ray study carried out on Guernica was in 1998. The results were debated by a panel of experts who made it clear the artwork was in a very delicate state of health and that it could not be moved from where it was.
"Since then, techniques have evolved significantly," he adds. "New plates and studies have been made, but the robot will be the one who lets us know about the exact state of the painting and what to do with it."
But Borja-Villel is clear about one thing: that Guernica will not leave his museum, despite repeated statements by the head of the Prado Museum, Miguel Zugaza, expressing his wish to see the mural displayed there again (it was at the Prado until 1992, when Spain's 20th-century art collection moved to the new Reina Sofía facilities).
"There is nothing to be done about it," says Borja-Villel. "The trustees decided it this way. This piece is essential to the museum. It cannot be separated from the context of the 1930s. Our great summer exhibition, which we will present in June, focuses on Guernica and the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World Expo."
After all, the museum director jokes, there are some items from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg on show at the Prado that he has his eye on ? but he is not going to ask Vladimir Putin for them.
When the robot is done with its work on the mural, it will be used on other museum pieces requiring attention. This revolutionary and costly piece of equipment (Francisco Serrano, Telefónica's cultural chief, declined to give any figures) will become one of the museum's restoration tools.
"The Telefónica company was created just 13 years before Picasso painted Guernica," he says. "Our technology could not remain indifferent to the needs of the painting."