The Case Of The Upside-Down Mondrian

November 7, 2022

Mistakes are rare when it comes to art historians and museum staff work. The most common is perhaps in provenance or date being off, but last week one of the most dumbfounding mishaps occurred over a painting in Germany. 

It‘s been recently discovered that a painting by abstract Dutch artist Piet Mondrian has been hanging upside down in various museums for the past 75 years. 

What Was The Mondrian Painting That Was Hanging Upside Down? 

The 1941 painting is a perfect example of Mondrian’s use of the de Stijl style, emphasized by a complex interlacing lattice pattern of red, yellow, black, and blue tapes. 

The work of art is titled “New York City I” and was first displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1945 but has also been hung at the art collection of the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf since 1980. 

What Evidence Led To This Conclusion? 

The way the painting is currently being hung shows the multicolored lines thickening at the bottom, suggesting a streamlined, simplified version of a skyline. However, when curator Susannae Meyer-Büser started her independent research for the museum’s new show on the dutch avant-garde artist earlier this year, she realized the picture should be shown the other way around. 

Meyer told publications that “the thickening of the grid would be at the top, like a dark sky. Once I pointed it out to the other curators, we realized it was undeniable. I am 100% certain the picture is the wrong way around.”

Other indicators suggesting the incorrect hanging of the picture have been present previously. One, for example, is that a similar painting in size, medium, and name, New York City, which is on display at the Centre Pompidou in Pairs France, has thicker lines staged at the top of the painting. 

Another piece of evidence is a photograph of Mondrian’s studio, taken a few days after his death and published in Town and Country in 1944, which also shows the same painting sitting on an easel the other way up. 

Meyer-Büser said Mondrian likely worked by starting his intricate layering with a line right at the tip of the frame and then worked his way down, which would also explain why some of the yellow lines stop a few millimeters short of the bottom edge. 

What Do Others In the Art World Think?

Still, not all art historians agree about the piece’s newly discovered orientation. Harry Cooper, a curator at the National Gallery of Art who has helped in other Mondrian exhibitions, tells the Times: “Even though it might have been put on an easel at some point, that doesn’t mean it would’ve been worked on further. A different decision about its orientation could have been made.”

The Issue With the Signature 

It is impossible to determine the reason for such a mishap. There are many possibilities as to what could have occurred, like a mistake when removing from storage what is another issue is that of being apple to check artist records. 

Unlike many of Mondrian’s earlier works, “New York City I” does not bear the artist’s signature and suggests that the artwork may not have been finished. This could also imply the difficulty in establishing the proper orientations of the painting sans signature. 

How Will The Mondrian Painting Be Hung Now? 

Despite all the evidence pointing to the work being currency displayed upside down, the work will be shown in that matter, as it has been for the last 75 years in the new Mondrian. Evolution shows opened in Düsseldorf last week. 

This, in part, is meant to keep the integrity of the painting. Given its age and years of being transported and on display, the adhesive tapes are already hanging on by a thread. They fear gravity’s effect on the tapes if the museum decided to showcase it upside down, pulling them off the canvas. 

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