Reality in Memory, Vik Muniz at the Mauritshuis

Issue no2
April - May 2019
Magisch Realisme

The Mauritshuis brings Vik Muniz: Verso, the museum's first ever exhibition of contemporary art. It is also the first museum to show Vik Muniz’s Versos series.

Muniz, an internationally renowned Brazilian artist who divides his time between New York and Rio de Janeiro, began working on the Versos project fifteen years ago, in the spring of 2001, when he visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York. At that time, the Thannhauser Galleries were under renovation, enabling Muniz to see the reverse side of some paintings in the collection, like The Ironing Woman by Picasso, Muniz’s favorite work of art. With the permission of the then director of the Guggenheim, Lisa Dennison, he took some photographs of the back side of the painting.

In an interview with Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Mauritshuis, Muniz recalls the visit to the Guggenheim, reflecting, ‘it’s like the difference between being a friend and a lover. I had seen her naked and I loved her’. Together with his team, Muniz has made meticulous copies of the reverse sides of paintings of Old Masters.

In the exhibition hall of the Mauritshuis, one finds the backs of paintings of various sizes. Some visitors, believing they are in a place still in the process of installation and not yet ready for inauguration, may continue on and leave the hall, not knowing that this is part of the exhibition itself. At a closer look, one detects eminent works, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon, to name a few. Muniz has selected these works allowing the viewer to recognize what he or she sees since these paintings are well set in our minds and memory. However, when exposed to the reverse side of the paintings, and without actually seeing the front side for comparison, these works take on a new meaning. In this regard, the Versos represent the stories that are still to be told.

Of interest is that visitors are given access to a part of the museum that is not normally open for public. Furthermore, looking at the back side of a painting is not something the viewer is used to do. One discovers that the back of a painting can be highly important and revealing. Muniz seeks to give insight into the processes of museum practices in the field of conservation. He sees the backs of paintings as a source of information. They tell the story of the past, and how artworks have been handled and have continuously changed over time. There can be evidence of drilling holes, metal brackets, labels and other marks left behind by previous owners. The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, stolen on several occasions, has a set of typical and unique wires on its back face, thus confirming its authenticity. Likewise, the electronic systems at the back of the Mona Lisa also anticipate a possible robbery. The material used can also be detected, for example, whether canvas or panels have been employed.

In this way, Muniz’s works show not only the images, but also the way in which these images are conveyed. The more we know about how the works are produced, the more we know about the story behind them, and maybe we can then finally understand them.

Lastly, it is notable that Muniz created five Versos for this exhibition. Among them, The Anatomy Lesson (Rembrandt), The Gold Finch (Carel Fabritius), and the Girl with a Pearl Earring, which are all part of the Mauritshuis’ collection. It is enthralling to have the possibility to explore both sides respectively, first in the Verso exhibition, and then in the permanent collection.

Back in 2001, Muniz fell in love with Picasso’s The Ironing Woman, when he saw the back side of the painting, and felt a sense of intimacy towards it, and it is this experience he wishes to share with his spectators. Considering that Muniz is interested in the museum practice of masterworks, and especially the conservation of the works, this show has been selected well as the Mauritius museum’s first contemporary exhibition. Muniz’s Versos challenge us to think differently about the masterpieces we know and remember so well, to see them in a different light. He seeks to tell the viewer the stories behind the paintings themselves, installing them not only as objects but as a way of conveying a message about the stories related to the original painting.

Vik Muniz, Verso

Mauritshuis The Hague

9 June - 4 September 2016

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2019