A painting by Piet Mondrian has spent 77 years hanging "upside down." The work is from 1941 and shows a complex interwoven network of red, yellow, black, and blue adhesive tapes called "New York City I." It was exhibited for the first time at the MoMA in New York in 1945, but since 1980 it has been in the North Rhine-Westphalia art collection in Dusseldorf.
It is probable that the painting, perhaps as early as 1945, was inadvertently exposed wrongly and that the error remained. The discovery was made during preparations for a new exhibition on the Dutch artist’s 150th birth anniversary.
Currently, the painting is exhibited with multicolored lines that thicken in the lower part. But in a photograph of Mondrian's studio taken shortly after his death in 1944, the painting is present on his easels, with the denser parts of the ribbon lines at the top.
"The thickening of the grid should be high up, like a dark sky," explained Susanne Meyer-Buser, the exhibition's curator. "When I pointed this out to the other curators, we realized it was really obvious. I'm 100% sure the image is the wrong way around."
"Unlike Mondrian's near-twin oil painting exhibited at the Center Pompidou in Paris, the tape image was rotated 180 degrees shortly after Mondrian's death in 1944," explained curator Susanne Meyer-Buser. The art historian presented several pieces of evidence to support her thesis, including a photo taken in the artist's studio where the work is on the easel and has a different orientation. However, the museum has expressed its intention to keep the work in the current position in which it was included in the gallery's catalog raisonné.
It is not the first time that works of art, even of worldwide relevance, have ended up on display in reverse. In 1961 the MoMA in New York hung Henri Matisse's "Le Bateau" upside down and the error, escaped even by the French artist's son, was reported only after 47 days. It was an abstract gouache made from scraps of paper: the curators' blunder was discovered by a Wall Street stockbroker and art lover, Genevieve Habert, who told the New York Times about it. The mistake was identified and corrected after two months, by which time the exhibition was ending.
A similar episode also happened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2015 for a work by Jackson Pollock that the artist had thought horizontal but was exhibited vertically for America is Hard to See exhibition. In this case, curators adhered to the direction in which the work was exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York.
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