CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

New Exhibition in Cape Town Shows Dutch and Flemish Paintings Facing the Wall

A new exhibition in the South African city of Cape Town is causing controversy amongst art-goers after the guest curator decided to display the paintings the wrong way round.

Museum press release, September 2004

This exhibition consists of an unusual, short-term curatorial "intervention" using Netherlandish 17th century paintings from the Michaelis Collection. In this conceptual intervention, all the works on display in the Old Townhouse Museum will be hung "the wrong way" so that only their backs can be seen by the viewer.

Curated by guest curator Andrew Lamprecht of the Michaelis School of Fine Art, the exhibition will function on several levels. Firstly, it will operate as a contemporary art installation that will raise questions and issues around perceptions and public expectations in a traditional gallery space. Secondly, it will draw attention to the important information and the deductions that can be drawn from the historical evidence found on the backs of pictures.

Old labels, inscriptions and other material have become attached to paintings over hundreds of years, providing clues to their previous ownership, origin, provenance and how they were made. Usually only accessible to specialists, the "hidden" side of a painting often has a unique story to tell.

BBC News, 5 September 2004

South Africa’s back-to-front art

By Richard Hamilton

BBC correspondent in Cape Town


A new exhibition in the South African city of Cape Town is causing controversy amongst art-goers after the curator decided to display the paintings the wrong way round. The paintings of 17th century Dutch old masters from the Michaelis Collection have been hung facing the wall and not the visitors. Housed in the Old Town House in Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square, they form part of the South African National Gallery collection and include works by Frans Hals and Anthony van Dyck.

Andrew Lamprecht, who is the guest curator of the exhibition, says the idea is to challenge people’s preconceptions about art. "I’m trying to refigure the notion of what a museum is all about," he says. "I want to subvert people’s expectations so that they’re forced to look at familiar objects in a completely different way."

Knee-jerk reaction

He also says the backs of the paintings reveal interesting details about their history. "Researchers, collectors and curators always look at the backs of paintings because they have a lot of information on them, such as signatures, dates and notes from collectors, which the general public don’t have access to."

But Flip, as the exhibition is called, has provoked some angry responses. "There was quite a lot of hostile reaction," says Mr Lamprecht. "We had letters to the newspapers, radio phone-in programmes – people who had not even seen the exhibition were outraged. It was just an incredible knee-jerk reaction. I think it’s because the art-going public in South Africa is quite conservative. Conceptual art is anathema to many people here."

Forgery claims

But not everyone has been outraged, says Mr Lamprecht. "They realise it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to find out about the history of these paintings." He says one visitor even pointed out an attempt at forgery. "They showed me a signature on the back of one of the paintings that said Jan Vermeer. It is quite a bad attempt at forging his signature. We know the painting cannot possibly be a Vermeer and the owner was just trying to make a lot of money." The exhibition runs until the end of October.