Spanish robot brings artworks back to life

In the basement of Madrid's Reina Sofia museum, a giant robot known as 'Pablito' is slowly snapping hundreds of microscopic shots of a painting by Catalan surrealist artist Joan Miro to determine the condition of the work.

Spanish robot brings artworks back to life
Humberto Duran, conservation expert at Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum monitors a robot taking pictures of a Miro's painting in Madrid. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

The pictures taken by the machine, which uses infrared and ultraviolet photography, will help experts determine the condition of the 1974 oil on canvas painting called "Women, Bird in the Night" in unprecedented detail.

The device lets restorers see cracks, scratches and creases as well underlying preparatory sketches and all subsequent touch-ups that would be otherwise undetectable.

"We can see countless details which we could not see with the naked eye," said Humberto Duran, 47, the restoration computer technician who oversaw the design of the robot.

"With this Miro work we have already seen a series of touch-ups and stains that were completely hidden," added Duran, wearing a white lab coat as he sat before the computer he uses to control the machine.

The robot has been nicknamed "Pablito" since the first work it tackled was the modern art museum's top draw — Pablo Picasso's immense canvas "Guernica", a depiction of the carnage of the Spanish Civil War.

The machine, which is nine metres (30 feet) long and 3.5 metres high and weighs about 1.2 tonnes when it is assembled at its full size, took 22,000 pictures of Picasso's black-and-white masterpiece last year.

Those images are currently being analysed by the restoration department at the museum, which received 2.5 million visitors last year.

Since then, the robot has been used on about a dozen other works, mostly by Miro, to help prepare an exhibition of works by the Catalan artist which will travel to the United States next year.

"We can know with great precision what state a painting is in, what its layers are like, what problems exist" or simply how the work was created, said the Reina Sofia's head of conservation, Jorge Garcia.

The museum, housed in a remodelled 18th century hospital which is home to works by Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon, teamed up with Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica to develop the machine, which cost around €150,000 ($195,000).

The robot moves with a precision of 25 microns, or 25 thousandths of a millimetre, and it can be programmed to take pictures from closer or further away from the painting depending on the shot needed.

Its design, according to Garcia, means that "no matter how many mistakes may occur, the device will never touch the painting".

The robot can work unsupervised round-the-clock and can be controlled by a computer from a remote location.

It was specially designed so that it could be assembled in front of "Guernica" and spare the delicate painting from having to make the risky move to the basement conservation laboratory.

In most cases though, paintings are taken to the lab to be analysed by the machine.

Museum art experts say the information the robot provides about a painting makes the job of restoring art works easier.

"It's a tremendous help. You have to know what you have before you work on it," said Carmen Muro, a 58-year-old chemist who works in the museum's restoration department.

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Paul Gauguin’s ‘Mata Mua’ returns to Spain

One of French painter Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings, "Mata Mua", will return to a Madrid museum on Monday following an agreement between the Spanish government and its owner, who took it out of the country.

mata mua madrid
Toward the end of his life, Gauguin spent ten years in French Polynesia, where he completed some of his most famous artwork Painting: Paul Gaugin

The artwork had been on display for two decades at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum but in 2020 when the institution closed because of the pandemic, the painting’s owner Carmen Thyssen moved it to Andorra where she currently lives.

Her decision to take “Mata Mua” to the microstate sandwiched between Spain and France raised fears she would remove other works from her collection which are on display at the museum.

“It is expected that the painting will arrive today,” a spokeswoman for the museum told AFP.


In 1989, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza bought Mata Mua at the Sotheby’s auction in New York. Painting: Paul Gauguin

The artwork will go back on display to the public “a few days after” Thyssen signs a new agreement with the Spanish state for the lease of her collection, she added. The deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday.

Painted in 1892 in vivid, flat colours, “Mata Mua” depicts two women, one playing the flute and the other listening, set against a lush Tahitian landscape.

It is one of the stars of Thyssen’s collection of several hundred paintings which are on show at the museum, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Her collection had initially been displayed at the Madrid museum as part of a free loan agreement signed in February 2002 that was subsequently extended.

But in August 2021 Spain’s culture ministry announced it had reached an agreement with Thyssen to rent the collection from her for 15 years for €97.5 million ($111.5 million), with “preferential acquisition rights on all or part” of the works. The collection includes a Degas, a Hopper and a Monet.

Aside from housing her collection of works, the museum displays the collection of her late husband, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss heir to a powerful industrial lineage who died in Spain in 2002.

The Spanish state bought his collection in 1993 from $350 million, according to the museum.