Vik Muniz: Famous Artworks’ B-Sides
A new exhibit at The Hague’s Mauritshuis features Vik Muniz’s re-created backsides of masterworks
By ANNA RUSSELL
June 17, 2016 12:48 p.m. ET
The front of Georges Seurat ’s pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884” depicts a bucolic park scene in a green-and-blue landscape outside Paris. The back of the 1884-86 painting, currently housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, tells a different story: It’s riddled with the names of graffitists, carved into the frame’s wooden stretchers over the years.
Artist Vik Muniz collects copies of the backsides of major paintings like other people collect baseball cards. In the past 15 years, he and a team of specialists have traveled extensively to photograph and meticulously re-create the B-sides of masterworks such as van Gogh ’s 1889 “Starry Night” and Grant Wood ’s 1930 “American Gothic” as sculptural objects.
“I’m working on getting ‘The Scream,’ ” says Mr. Muniz, who divides his time between Brooklyn and Rio de Janeiro. “I’ve become kind of a hobbyist.”
Now Mr. Muniz’s reconstructions, which he calls “versos,” are on display near the real things. At the Mauritshuis, The Hague’s boutique museum for old masters, 15 of his replicas are on view in “Vik Muniz: Verso” until Sept. 4. The show includes five new backsides from the museum’s greatest-hits list, among them Vermeer ’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665), Carel Fabritius ’s “The Goldfinch” (1654) and Rembrandt ’s monumental “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632).
It’s a first for Mauritshuis, which has never before staged an exhibition of contemporary work, according to museum director Emilie Gordenker. It’s also a first for Mr. Muniz, who completed his initial verso, “Starry Night,” in 2008 and has long wanted to show the copies in a setting worthy of the originals. “The back of the painting is a bit like the artist’s studio,” he says. “It’s a little dirty, it’s a little bit deceiving, but it also gives you a sense of intimacy.”
Making each work begins with gaining access to the original painting. Mr. Muniz lobbied the Louvre for years before he was allowed to view the rarely shown backside of the “Mona Lisa,” which has the word “haut” written on it in pencil near the top, to indicate “up” in French. (The origins are uncertain.) The artist and his team photograph every inch of each artwork’s back, then collaborate with conservators to find matches for, or re-create, material on the work’s flip-side: aged wood, rare hinges, stickers, labels, nails and other markings acquired over the years. “The back is always changing,” says Mr. Muniz.
Rembrandt’s outsize “Anatomy Lesson,” which depicts the public dissection of a corpse, posed a particular challenge. In addition to its size—at 6.5 feet by 8.2 feet, it’s one of the largest works Mr. Muniz has attempted—it was relined in the 19th century with a now-rare canvas bearing a herringbone pattern. For his replica, Mr. Muniz had a new canvas commissioned in the exact style.
Next year, the show will travel to Vienna’s Belvedere Museum, for which Mr. Muniz will make the back of Gustav Klimt ’s “The Kiss” (1907-08). Meanwhile, he’s eyeing other works. “We’ve started thinking about the Prado,” he says. “Imagine [ Velázquez ’s] ‘Las Meninas!’ ”