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31 October 2022

Mondrian’s upside down masterpiece is a reminder that art is completely subjective

The story of the 75-year-old mistake tells us less about the artwork, and more about ourselves.

By Daniel Cody

How can thousands of people not realise an artwork is the wrong way round? That is perhaps the most obvious question to arise from the story that a masterpiece by the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian has been hanging upside down for 75 years.

The mistake was revealed by Susanne Meyer-Büser, a curator who realised during research for an exhibition that something was wrong with the piece, titled New York City I. “Once I pointed it out to the other curators, we realised it was very obvious. I am 100 per cent certain the picture is the wrong way around,” she told the Guardian.

Before the sniggering at clueless art-lovers begins, it’s worth pointing out that it was an easy mistake to make. Unlike most of Mondrian’s other works, New York City I, painted in 1941 and first displayed in 1945, does not have his signature on it; if it had there could have been no mistake.

No doubt this story will still elicit schadenfreude from anybody dismissive of the popularity and astronomical price tags of abstract art. But beyond the hilarity, there is another message about the nature of art itself.

When aesthetes gathered in Sotheby’s in 2018 to see the auction of Girl With Balloon by Banksy, they were shocked to witness the piece self-destructing upon purchase, the canvas passing through a built-in shredder set up by the artist. Once the spectacle was over, it was clear that the artwork had taken on a whole new meaning – not to mention an even bigger price tag. The entire story – the collectors’ reactions, the joke, the new valuation – was itself a powerful work of art. 

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There have been cases where abstract artists have insisted their work be hung “upside down” to create a specific experience. Drawing from an image turned upside down is also a long-established practice used to engage different parts of the brain. Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract art, is thought to have been inspired to create his Improvisations series after being struck in his studio in Munich by an unfamiliar painting’s “extraordinary beauty, glowing with inner radiance”, then realising that it was one of his own works that was upside down.

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The story of New York City I is a message about art itself. It is a reminder that art has no right answer; it means something different not just for different people, but also different times, depending on our own knowledge. Enduring works of art are often completely transformed over the years – or they can even be torn to pieces and yet remain alive.

Mondrian’s painting will now convey new meanings, but the experiences of those that saw it beforehand are arguably even more valuable, as they will not be had by those who view it today. In a poetic ending, New York City I will not be turned the “right” way round, because the adhesive tapes used on the canvas have weakened over the years and so changing the pull of gravity might damage the artwork. There’s something beautiful about knowing that it will continue to be experienced upside down, imperfect, unapologetic.

[See also: How horror changed modern art]

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