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A gallery at the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague now appears in the midst of installation, with paintings propped against the walls, the backs of their frames exposed to visitors. If you were to turn them around, however, you’d come face-to-face with the Mona Lisa, “American Gothic,” “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and 13 other of the world’s most famous and widely recognized paintings. These are, as you may expect, not the originals, which remain safe and properly hung in their respective institutions. They are sculptures, carefully crafted as exact replicas of the frames housing the authentic works, all created over the last 15 years as part of Vik Muniz‘s research- and labor-intensive series Verso.
Now representing the first exhibition of contemporary art in the museum’s history, Vik Muniz: Verso brings all the works together in a display for the first time. Muniz first thought of recreating the frames of famous paintings when he saw Picasso’s “Woman Ironing” (1904) in the Guggenheim while it was in transit, with the blue-gray canvas facing the wall. He photographed it, and the resulting image launched a longstanding fascination with these rarely seen backs of artworks. With all their hardware — the wooden beams, wires, nails, and other knickknacks — the fading stickers, and the inked scribbles from the hands of conservators or handlers, the frames often reveal additional stories to the much-discussed paintings they cradle. You have to wonder if there’s a reason why someone, for instance, scrawled a north-facing arrow and the French word “Haut” on the Mona Lisa — essentially, shorthand for “This side up.”
Muniz photographed the artworks in high-resolution before creating the sculptures. Gaining access to these works was time-consuming and difficult — particularly the Mona Lisa (which took six years of pestering) — though it probably helps if you’re a widely exhibited and established artist.
Some of the resulting versos speak of the distances the paintings travelled: featuring a neat cluster of international stickers on an otherwise clean back, Fernand Léger’s “The Smokers (Les fumeurs)” (1911–1912) was an experienced voyager — especially compared to Henri Matisse’s “The Red Studio” (1911), which rarely left the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as its blank reverse indicates, Muniz says. MoMA has loaned out van Gogh’s “Starry Night” a number of times, though; on Muniz’s frame — the very first he executed — you may observe the various types of stickers used to ensure its safe trip to the Musée de l’Orangerie for a 1955 exhibition as well as to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980 and in 1986.
Muniz also learned that a great amount of effort went into the making of some of these frames, often meant to house the masterpieces for posterity. He and his team had to build every single part of the frame of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), including the hardware necessary to properly stretch the canvas. The Mona Lisa was one of the largest challenges: Muniz had to buy a tree in Tennessee to recreate its frame, making sure to also precisely reconstruct the museum’s own contemporary update: an electronic device that monitors a gap 19th-century conservators had closed with a butterfly joint. If that gap widens a single micron, someone will receive a text notification. When Muniz had the opportunity to bring his recreated frame to the Louvre and placed it side-by-side with the authentic painting, technicians who have spent years caring for the original apparently thought his was the genuine one.
Muniz and his team made five of the versos specifically for this exhibition: Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and his “View of Delft,” Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp,” and Frans Post’s “View of Itamaracá Island in Brazil.” The originals have migrated from their usual posts to hang next to these facsimiles, offering visitors an otherwise impossible, simultaneous view of both the works’ fronts and backs. We may be used to admiring painstaking details of brushstrokes on paint, but Muniz’s obsessively reconstructed frames with their accumulated markings also invite us to consider conservators’ and technicians’ careful tasks that enable the artworks to be displayed.
Vik Muniz: Verso continues at Mauritshuis (Plein 29, 2511 CS Den Haag, Netherlands) through September 4.