The Mona Lisa has a note reading “this way up”, Rembrandt’s Lucretia is screwed together with car parts, and Matisse’s The Red Studio is covered with chicken wire.
These are the revelations of an exhibition at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, which displays a new side to some of the world’s most famous paintings, thanks to an intriguing series of artworks by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. The clue is in the name, Verso, meaning “the back” in Portuguese.
In a special exhibition space in this museum of Dutch Golden Age art, different-sized frames lean casually against the walls, as though waiting to be hung. They include Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa), Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. These are not the originals but minutely recreated replicas of their flip-sides.
There are also five new facsimiles on show based on works in the Mauritshuis collection, including Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and View of Delft, as well as Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp – which, it turns out, has a warning on the back about a rather nasty splinter.
Muniz first saw what lies behind art as an eight-year-old on a school trip to an installation by the Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi, which was hung on glass easels in the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. “I wasn’t very interested by the paintings,” he recalls, “but looking at the backs of them, they looked like medieval machines.”
He started his Verso series 40 years later, after walking around the Guggenheim New York with then-director Lisa Dennison, and being fascinated by the label-plastered back of Pablo Picasso’s Woman Ironing, which was leaning face down against a wall. “I felt I shouldn’t be there,” he says, “As though I was in the presence of somebody I knew very well, and saw that person naked. It was very intimate.”
Muniz was allowed to take high-resolution photos of the Picasso (and the backs of other masterpieces) and began working with a team, including his own picture-framer Barry Frier and art expert Tony Pinotti, to make them into exquisite life-sized models.
“You have this sense you are dealing with paintings as objects, not images,” he explains. “Images transcend physical space – they can be electronic – but an object has a physical presence. The back reflects the artist’s studio, it has nails, hardware and is always changing. It shows the museum’s role as conservator, too.”
“He has collected a group of paintings that are iconic works, things you should know in your mind’s eye,” says Emilie Gordenker, Mauritshuis director and curator of the Verso show. “You realise these things are actual physical objects. They are things: they get hung up, they get written on and pasted on.”
The first room of the show is deliberately presented without signage, with paintings sitting on blocks against the walls. “There’s this shock,” she says, walking around. “You come in and feel you shouldn’t be here, that it’s not done yet.” Muniz was adamant, says Gordenker. “He wanted it very plain, no signs, nothing. The idea is that you should start poking around and discover for yourself what it is.”
This being a museum show, however, there is of course a digital smart-guide with an image of each of the 15 original paintings and commentary from Muniz. Of the Mona Lisa, for instance, he says: “It has handwriting saying ‘this way up’ – as if somebody would make that mistake!”
Some paintings are covered with labels charting previous owners or places to which the painting has toured; others reveal signs of damage, re-lining on material that in the case of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson is no longer manufactured, and curious gallery techniques. The back of the da Vinci is monitored with an electronic system that alerts curators if it expands or contracts, risking irreparable damage.
The Vermeer replica also reveals complex framing techniques employed on the works of the Dutch painter so they would endure, while mysterious springs used by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in framing Rembrandt’s Lucretia, are more commonly found in the US car industry.
A second room shows how the team aged and recreated woods, materials and stickers for the replicas, from buying a whole tree to get the wood for the Mona Lisa to getting a woman with a collection of old looms in upstate New York to hand-weave the herringbone fabric for the Rembrandt. They created half-stamps to mimic degraded stamps, carefully painted in old marks and tracings, and even persuaded some museums to give them their own stickers.
“The reaction has been really positive so far,” says Gordenker. “I’m looking for new ways to reconsider our old collection and this is a very good way to do it.”
Meanwhile, Muniz, who divides his time between Rio de Janerio and New York, is planning the next works, which may prove “forbiddingly” costly to make: Gustav Klimt’s Kiss and Edvard Munch’s The Scream. He would love an invitation to the Courtauld or National Gallery in London, and hopes his exhibition will tour other museums, adding works to the series based on their collections.
As a viewer, it’s incredibly tempting to take a peek behind his frames. “The artist would, I think, quite like it,” admits Gordenker, “but we prefer not. We put little alarms on the back, so we know if it happens. He wants you to have a look – in fact there’s nothing there.”
• Vik Muniz: Verso is at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, until 4 September.