Oops: Mondrian work was hung upside down for decades, curators admit

3 mins read
Curators in Germany say after 75 years they have finally found the right way to hang one Mondrian work. But "New York City I" will stay upside down. Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH/dpa

You could be forgiven for mistaking the top for the bottom of a Piet Mondrian painting, many of which are straight lines of colour. Curators in Germany say after 75 years they have finally found the right way to hang one Mondrian work. But it will stay upside down.

It’s never hard to miss the work of Piet Mondrian: strict horizontal and vertical lines, always in the primary colours blue, red and yellow.

Hanging it the right way round is another matter, it would seem.

Curators in Germany have now admitted that a significant Mondrian work has likely been hanging upside down for decades.

Ahead of an exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of the birth ofthe Dutch avant-garde painter, curator Susanne Meyer-Büser laid outthe evidence to justify her gallery’s decision to turn the well-knownpainting “New York City 1” around.

The announcement was made at a press conference for the anniversary exhibition starting October 29 in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in the western city of Dusseldorf.

The paintings “Composition with Blue and White” (l, 1936) and “Lighthouse in Westkapelle” (1910) by the artist Piet Mondrian at the Western German Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen K20. Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa –

The 1941 painting “New York City 1” is both the high point and the end of the “Mondrian Evolution” show, which traces the artist’s striking development from landscape painter to master of abstraction on the basis of 90 pictures.

The work in question, made of red, yellow, blue and black adhesive strips crossing horizontally and vertically, has been part of the NRW Art Collection’s holdings since 1980 – and apparently been hanging upside down the entire time.

In contrast to its sister painting in oil, which was created at the same time and is almost identical in size, and which hangs in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the adhesive painting has been shown upside down since Mondrian’s death in 1944, Meyer-Büser said. 

What is also striking is that in a photograph taken in Mondrian’s studio a few days after his death in 1944, the adhesive painting can still be seen in a different orientation on the easel. The denser stripes are on the upper edge and thus run exactly as in the oil painting in Paris.

”Could it be that the orientation shown in the photo is the actualone Mondrian intended?” asked Meyer-Büser.

The way the tape was applied also appears to corroborate her assumption, and Meyer-Büser believes that Mondrian applied the tape from top to bottom.

At the top of the painting he still had control over the strips and applied them with precision, she said. “Towards the bottom, the strips are slipping.”

There, the strips have been cut off in an unclean way, so that half a centimetre is always missing.

However, the way the Düsseldorf gallery has hung the painting the hanging, however, the unclean edges are now at the top. 

The direction of the adhesive strips ultimately convinced the restorers, says the art historian. “So it is to be noted that the painting ‘New York City 1’ from the art collection is upside down.”  

The problem is that Mondrian had not signed the painting. Possibly it was only used as a study object.

The hanging error may have happened as early as 1945, when the painting was first exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Meyer-Büser says. 

”Was it a coincidence, was it an oversight?” Perhaps it had already been turned over when the transport crates were unpacked, she asks. The administrator of the estate, Harry Holtzman, later wrote ”Mondrian” in large letters on the wooden frame. Had he also “not looked properly”?

In any case, the painting’s correct orientation has gone down in art history in one fixed way, says Meyer-Büser. The art collection will no longer turn the picture over. 

”We will not do that,” says Meyer-Büser. After all, it has stood upside down for over 75 years and is made of delicate adhesive strips. “If I turn the work upside down, I risk destroying it.

A Mondrian self-portrait is among the works on display in the exhibition “Mondrian. Evolution” at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen K20 in western Germany marking the Dutch artist’s 150th birthday. Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa

”Hanging it upside down is part of the painting’s history. “And it tells a lot about observing and accepting authority.”

”New York City 1” still leaves much open to speculation. 

Throughout his life, Mondrian worked with reflections to sharpen his own and his viewers’ perception, Meyer-Büser explains. 

Ultimately, this piece of art works like a city map that can be turned around as needed. And just like the city after which it was named, it runs in all directions.

”Maybe there is no right or wrong way round at all?” ©dpa

2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Piet Mondrian. The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen is taking this as an opportunity to honor him and his art in the comprehensive exhibition “Mondrian. Evolution.”

Many are familiar with Piet Mon- drian (1872– 1944) as a painter of rigid geometric compositions with black-and-white lines and fields of pure color in red, blue, or yellow. However, the fact that the Dutch- man initially chose landscapes and other representational motifs during the first decades of his career and often staged these with surprising colorfulness is hardly known.

On the basis of ninety works, the exhibition, which opens to the public on October 29, sheds light on Mondrian’s remarkable path from the early naturalistic paintings to the late abstract works and traces the formal connections that exist between the paintings spanning five decades.

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