Prado Show Reveals the Hidden Artworks on the Backs of Masterpieces 

MADRID — For more than 200 years, people have flocked to Madrid’s Museo del Prado to admire Diego Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas” (1656). In the piece, several framed paintings are depicted hanging on the walls of the dark interior court scene. But the largest painting is one that we cannot see; or rather, one we can only see the back of. Velázquez paints a rare self-portrait on that hidden surface, signaling that the back of a painting also matters. On the Reverse, an exhibition at the Prado, explores why.

This is not a typical painting show. Many of its 98 artworks are displayed with only their backs visible to the public, granting viewers unprecedented access to a world that is almost always hidden from view. Behind these pieces, we find handwritten inscriptions, playful sketches, failed works, wax seals, acquisition stickers, newspaper clippings, and other surprises.

Curated by the Spanish artist Miguel Ángel Blanco, On the Reverse tells an alternative history of Western painting that draws attention to artworks’ physicality and their status as objects. This simple but powerful gesture raises questions about the ways that we assign value and meaning to masterworks, and art in general.

The exhibition opens with “Verso (Las Meninas)” (2018), Vik Muniz’s life-size facsimile of Veláquez’s iconic painting. (The original artwork hangs elsewhere in the museum.) Muniz’s piece is impressively executed, with convincing signs of “age” and “wear.” With this initial work, Blanco signals to us that the backs of artworks can be much more than they seem; in this case, they may even be artworks in themselves.

In a series of paintings nearby, the back of the canvas is a forceful protagonist. One of the most striking is that of Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Artist in his Studio” (c. 1628), where the back of an enormous, imposing canvas on its easel dominates the frame, dwarfing the artist standing nearby. Strong light shines directly on the canvas while — half in shadow and pushed to the edge of the image — the painter looks on with a perplexed expression on his face. We aren’t permitted to see its contents, but here the canvas seems more powerful than the person who paints on it. It represents a site that is full of activity and possibility.

Perhaps the most fascinating works in the show are the ones displayed with both the front and back faces visible. Though some of these pieces were originally meant to be dual-sided, the ones that were never intended to be seen both ways reveal unexpected glimpses into the artist’s context and process. The reverse of the sensual oil painting “The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene” (1585–1600) by Annibale Carracci, for example, is accompanied by several quick pencil sketches of faces in profile on its verso. A catalogue essay by Ana González Mozo describes life in artist workshops during this period, and speculates that these doodles were done by Carracci’s students, though it’s unclear whether they were trying to sharpen their skills or just to have a bit of fun. This piece is a reminder of the vibrant environments that produced many of the works from this era, where experienced masters shared their skills and often their living spaces with young, ambitious apprentices.

Artist in his Studio Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn Oil on panel 24.8 x 31.7 cm c. 1628 Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Zoe Oliver Sherman Collection given in memory of Lillie Oliver Poor
Rembrandt van Rijn, “Artist in his Studio” (c. 1628), oil on panel, 9.76 x 12.48 inches (image courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The exhibition moves through time and space rather fluidly, though Western men are clearly the focus. Of its nearly 100 artworks, only two are by women artists. Two additional women artists are depicted in a slideshow of documentary photos of artists in their studios, while a framed photo by Alfred Stieglitz depicts Georgia O’Keeffe carrying a canvas. Surely there are related and compelling examples of works by women that fall within the show’s expansive timeline, which spans from the 15th century to today. Perhaps even more egregiously, in addition to Blanco’s choice to include so few female artists, he also chose to display three of his own artworks. The pieces in question — a set of small, handmade boxes that contain dust from the back of a painting in the Prado’s collection — may tie into the show’s themes, but a curator displaying his own artwork in an exhibition of this magnitude is a conflict of interest that undercuts the show’s impact.

Despite this, On the Reverse is a thought-provoking presentation that brings many engaging and timely ideas together. It derives its power from a unique viewing experience that gives us a peek at a hidden territory that not many besides conservators, gallerists, and collectors ever see.

On the Reverse continues at the Museo Nacional del Prado (Calle de Ruiz de Alarcón 23, Madrid, Spain) through March 3. The exhibition was curated by Miguel Ángel Blanco.

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