Abstract art confusion: Experts realise Mondrian painting has been hung upside down for 75 years

A curator working on the exhibition Mondrian. Evolution, which opened at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen museum in Germany, has discovered that one of the highlights of the exhibition has been hanging upside down for 75 years. In fact, it seems that it has been displayed this way since leaving the artist’s studio and has never been seen the correct way round by the public.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was a Dutch abstract artist, who developed from painting landscapes in his early career to pioneering new abstract styles, creating iconic geometric works which use minimal colours. The artist dubbed his new style ‘Neo-Plasticism’, in which he used only the three primary colours and a grid of black vertical and horizontal lines. The upside-down painting, New York City I, is a complicated criss-crossing lattice of red, yellow, black and blue adhesive tapes. Mondrian created a similar version in paint, New York City (1942), which hangs the right way up, and was one of the clues that the adhesive tape version was being displayed incorrectly.

Susanne Meyer-Büser, the curator who has made the discovery, explained how she worked out there had been a mistake in the work’s display. She found a photograph, published in American lifestyle magazine Town & Country, of Mondrian’s studio from June 1944, in which the painting could be seen hanging the other way round. The same magazine has also reported on this new discovery, in which they include the original photograph they had published in 1944. Composition wise, Meyer-Büser says it makes more sense the other way round: “the thickening of the grid should be at the top, like a dark sky. Once I had pointed it out to the other curators, we realised it was very obvious. I am 100% certain the picture is the wrong way round.”

The painting was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1944, where another photograph shows it had already been flipped. Meyer-Büser has considered how the confusion with the orientation of the painting first occurred: “Was it a mistake when someone removed the work from its box? Was someone being sloppy when the work was in transit?”, the curator said. “It’s impossible to say.”

Despite the fact the curators are convinced the painting has been displayed incorrectly, they will continue to show it the wrong way round in future, due to the potential danger to the work by flipping it round: “the adhesive tapes are already extremely loose and hanging by a thread,” Meyer-Büser said. “If you were to turn it upside down now, gravity would pull it into another direction. And it’s now part of the work’s story.”

Mondrian. Evolution exhibition opened on Saturday 29th October, and will run until 21st February 2023.

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