National Gallery of Denmark turns selected works of art around to display their reverse

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National Gallery of Denmark turns selected works of art around to display their reverse
Pieter Cornelisz. van Slingelandt, bagsiden af En pige med en papegøje / the reverse of Girl with a Parrot, 1655-1691.

COPENHAGEN.- SMK shows you an entirely new side to art as the museum turns selected works of art around to display their reverse. Called Flip Sides, this new exhibition is created on the occasion of the Golden Days festival and its theme, The B-sides of History.

The National Gallery of Denmark takes the theme of this year’s Golden Days festival quite literally. The B-sides of History is about all the things that lay hidden; those things you do not see at first glance. In this exhibition, the museum turns selected works of art around, allowing visitors to view their flip sides and explore the unseen stories that lie hidden around their back.

Some flip sides reveal an earlier work of art being recycled – or perhaps the early beginnings of a painting that was soon abandoned, causing the artist to simply turn the canvas around and start over. There may be coats of arms telling us about previous owners, or traces of restoration and conservation treatment.

When we flip over the Dutch painter Pieter Cornelisz. van Slingelandt’s Girl with a Parrot, we see that the oak frame has been given a light ground followed by a thin brown layer of pigment, just as if it were to be used as the front. At this time in art history, artists would often do this to their better panels in order to stabilise them.

We also see a small red wax seal – a mark left by an unknown collector. The crest shows two crescent moons and a bird, with a horse’s head as helm. Heraldry experts believe that this is a British crest from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

A painting with two reverse sides
The exhibition comprises 54 works dating from around 1400 to the present day. Among them we find a very special piece from the SMK collections, which may be art history’s first painting to have two reverse sides.

Around 1670, the Flemish painter Cornelis Nobertus Gijsbrechts painted Trompe-l'oeil. The Reverse of a Framed Painting, which shows – on its front side – a painting of the reverse of a painting, complete with a canvas mounted on a stretcher, attached with blue nails. The artist has also painted in a small note bearing a hand-written inventory number that looks as if it has been stuck on in red wax.

If you didn’t know any better, you might easily take this for an example of minimal art or ready-made art from the twentieth century. However, as the name of the work indicates, this is a trompe-l’oeil, a work which aims to fool the eye and deceive its audience through its sheer realism.

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