Culture / Art Republik

Vik Muniz Explores Back of Paintings with Verso

From Da Vinci to Vermeer, the artist shows us the journey of the art world’s treasured creations in a unique exhibition.

Jun 14, 2016 | By Vimi Haridasan

Ever wondered what lies quite literally behind Mona Lisa’s smile? So did Brazilian artist Vik Muniz — or so we think. It would explain why he has recreated 15 exact reproductions of the backs of some of world’s famous paintings, which are now on display at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

From Vincent Van Goh’s “Starry Night” to Vermeer’s “The Girl with a Pearl Earring”, the exhibition tells the tale of how a moment was captured forever on canvas while the back of the painting shows exactly how things had changed. The almost bare, wooden frame look exposed, and may even cause a few visitors to think that they may have walked into a storage room by chance. However, the exhibition also gives us a chance to travel back in time to learn about each painting’s previous owners as well as its journey and the changing tastes in art conservation.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The inspiration for the exhibition and its concept first started when Muniz first visited The Museum of Art of Sao Paulo, as a schoolboy. His interest was piqued not by the artworks but by the mechanics and artistry on their backs. The museum had displayed the paintings on glass easels that allowed visitors who were exiting the building to see the backs of the paintings.

“[As] an eight-year-old I wasn’t very interested in paintings. I was very fascinated that all the paintings from the back, they looked like machines, contraptions. They looked like things that did things,” Muniz told AFP. “And in fact they do. They serve a purpose. They are instruments for preserving history” he added.

His curiosity was later revived in a startling moment when as an adult on a visit to the Guggenheim in New York, he was given a look at the back of Picasso’s “Ironing Woman”. “It was like looking at a naked person,” he recalled.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.

An interest was reborn, and when photographing the backs of paintings failed to satisfy his creative spirit, he conceived the idea of actually copying the backs of some of the world’s best-loved masterpieces. It was not all smooth sailing though, as the artist spent six years trying to convince The Louvre in Paris to allow him to study the back of “The Mona Lisa”.

The Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague in Netherlands gave Muniz — renowned for his eclectic art works often in unusual mediums such as chocolate, rubbish or sugar — unparalleled access to its most iconic works from the Dutch Golden Age. He and his team have created five new reproductions. Joining “Pearl Earring” and “The Anatomy Lesson”, are Vermeer’s “View of Delft” and “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius, as well as Frans Post’s “View of Itamarca Island in Brazil”.

For future projects, Muniz is already eyeing Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” hanging in Vienna, and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” — which in an added challenge has another painting on its back. For Mauritshuis paintings, conservator Abbie Vandivere said it was an exciting moment when “Pearl Earring” came off the wall — something which doesn’t happen often. “But you can’t tell from the back that there’s this very famous painting on the front,” she laughed.

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