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What’s So Interesting About the Reverse of a Painting?

When perusing the TATE Liverpool’s permanent modern art collection, I love to think on how the paintings are hung. A number of famous paintings are sandwiched in a clear acrylic, bordered by a steel frame. These paintings (see George Grosz’s Suicide, 1916) are suspended in the middle of the gallery spaces rather than being fixed to the white walls.

This display method presents the works, not as two-dimensional portals or windows to look through, but as sculptural works: an object in itself, to be examined in its materiality. In this we see something of the philosophy of the modernist movement; an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes in response to the new landscape of modern life. The canvas is not a window into another reality, but a surface to be acted upon.

Examining the unseen face

George Grosz’s Suicide is one such image. Disturbed by the horrors of the first world war, Grosz turned to political and satirical cartoons that ‘expressed despair, hate and disillusionment’.

George Grosz’s ‘Suicide’ at TATE Liverpool.

Unlike the canvases held fast to the wall, one is able to orbit the work and examine the physical properties of the pictorial and non-pictorial areas. For someone who is quite fond of Grosz’s work, I feel like a fan, enjoying all the unseen details that we are not usually privy to. The age of the wooden frame, the stamp of the manufacturer, the tickets of the auctioneers and the markings of careless manhandling all add to the mystique of masterpiece.

Having examined Suicide numerous times in books and catalogues, I find myself so much more interested in the unseen face of the painting, the reverse. This ‘unseen’ is what gets us geeks going. Whether it is Drake’s old lyric notebook selling for more than my salary, or Nike releasing a series of Air Max 1s inspired by Tinker Hatfield’s original schematic sketches of the shoe, the art viewing pubic thrives off the restricted initial sketches of an artwork in its infancy – or as Nike have shrewdly branded it ‘NOT FOR RESALE’.

In the second half of the 17th century, the fantastically named Flemish painter Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, an old-school trompe-l’oeil master, depicted the reverse of a painting in 1670 (appropriately titled, Trompe L’oeil: The Reverse of a Framed Painting). Though this painting does not specifically address the charm surrounding the celebrity object, it does certainly draw our attention to the unseen support – the artistic underbelly of almost every famous canvas.

‘Trompe L’oeil: The Reverse of a Framed Painting’ by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts

Picking up on this, in recent years artists and curators alike have turned to the unseen painting as an art piece in its own right. In 2015 contemporary artist Paul Litherland created a series of photographs showing the reverse sides of artworks drawn from the collection of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery, Concordia University. The images reference the trompe-l’oeil tradition which depicts objects in an incredibly lifelike manner as to cause the viewer to question what is real and what is illusion.

Litherland’s official webpage explains,

“He [Litherland] shares in an overarching interest in the gesture of elevating the mundane material support of an artwork to the status of art, and thus flipping the normal status of the front and the back. He also engages with the trompe-l’oeil tradition, which confronts viewers with the pleasures and questions that come from mixing up the “real” and the “representation” of the real.”

The photographic reverse of a painting plays the part of the pictorial window, portraying something which is not really there. One 2016 Milanese exhibition titled ‘Recto Verso’ focused solely on the power and allure of the reverse of the painting in both traditional and contemporary art. This exhibition brought together a range of works that look at the unseen support and structure of the painting, questioning how the art object carries its celebrity status and how the spell can be broken when the vulnerable substructure of the canvas is exposed.

From the ‘Recto Verso’ Exhibition

Revelation and Disillusionment

When one finally encounters their idol, in whatever form it takes, there can often be a sense of disappointment and disillusion and yet for others an intensification of their delight. Whether it is releasing that the Mona Lisa is not much bigger than an A4 piece of paper, or the reality that Lady Gaga is only just an inch over five foot, when a person or an object fails to meet up to our expectations we can be left feeling bereft. On the other hand, when we have a sense of sharing or partaking with something which is exclusive and unseen, our enjoyment of an object or person can increase.

Have you ever been hit by one of these contradictory reactions? Enamoured that the often unobserved is laid bare before you or disenchanted as the magician’s secrets are all revealed?

So what about George Grosz? In viewing Suicide and other works, I felt the privilege of seeing the side of work that often only the gallery handlers get to see. To imagine the story behind the artefact. Where did Grosz buy the canvas? What was his mental state like when beginning? Did he have to return to the work when struggling with his ill health?

Yet, as with Grosz (and much European art of the period) there is a sense of defeat in seeing the artefact in its entirety. No magic, no mystical allure, just some wood, staples and canvas.