Modernist Mondrian Painting Has Been Hanging Upside Down For 75 Years, Museum Discovers

A modernist painting by Piet Mondrian has been hanging upside down for more than seven decades, museum curators have discovered.

The painting is called “New York City I” and combines geometric shapes with a primary color palette, which the Dutch artist is known for. Mondrian made several paintings as part of the “New York” series in the early 1940s after moving there from his native country. 

The German-based gallery Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf has been exhibiting the work since 1980. All along even before it was acquired by its current home gallery, the colorful modernist painting was shown with the thicker cluster of overlapping lines toward the bottom of the work, but a photo of the artist’s studio shows “New York City I” hanging the opposite way, with the line cluster at the top.

“The density of the strips along the top edge lends the work a resemblance to its close relative ‘New York City,’ in which the zone of greatest density is also located at the top edge,” the museum catalog says, per CNN. “The blue strips along the left, top, and lower edges are now positioned in exactly the same places.”

“An initial visual inspection confirmed the suspicion that by turning the canvas upside down, the adhesive strips on the upper edge are aligned with the edge of the picture, whereas those at the lower edge peter out, with pieces missing here and there,” the explanation continues. 

“Assuming that Mondrian began by attaching the strips at the top, and, following the principle of gravity, unrolled them downward to attach them at the bottom of the canvas, then the painting has indeed been hanging upside down ever since it was first exhibited in 1945.”

Still, no one is sure which way the Dutch artist intended for the painting to hang, despite the photo they found. He died in 1944 at the age of 71. 

“Mondrian repeatedly turned the picture around while he was working on it, in which case there would be no right or wrong orientation,” the catalog notes.

“This may be the truly revolutionary feature of New York City 1: the fact that it can be read in any direction, like the street map of a big city, in an attitude of open-mindedness, moving every way at once, like couples dancing the boogie-woogie,” the description continues.

Museum curator Susanne Meyer-Büser said at a press conference last week that they aren’t planning to change the way the work is exhibited. “Turning it may risk damaging it — and the orientation confusion is now a unique part of the history of the object,” she said.

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