Bottoms Up!


Hanging an art exhibition can involve a number of decisions, such as what height to hang paintings on the wall or how to light the pieces, but one thing which you’d imagine wouldn’t be subjective is what orientation to use. It’s probably best to hang a painting right side up, yes? However, accidents do happen.

The most famous example is probably Le Bateau by Matisse. In 1961 The Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed it upside down for 47 days until a determined visitor was able to convince the director of the museum that it was hung incorrectly.

Another orientation error, this time sideways rather than upside down, appears to have been made by the Tate Modern in London. The Tate has hung two paintings from Rothko’s Black on Maroon series either vertically or horizontally at various times. Assuming that the artist’s signatures indicate which orientation he preferred, then horizontal is the correct orientation.

There are also stories of The Lawrence Tree by Georgia O’Keeffe being hung upside down in a Connecticut gallery, and there are comments she made in letters which confirm the painting was hanging incorrectly for years. A search of Google images indicates that the confusion continues to this day.

Van Gogh’s Grass and Butterflies was evidently hung wrong-side-up in 1965 by the National Gallery in London. Another story I see mentioned frequently is that in 1936 a seascape by Spencer Nichols was hung upside down in a New Jersey museum. These anecdotes appear fairly often on the internet, but never with any citations, so I can’t be sure if they actually happened or are merely the visual arts versions of urban history.

Perhaps a more scientific approach could enlighten us as to the logistics of determining correct orientation.

Abstraction allows the artist to focus on composition and medium rather than on subject matter. In the process of creating a modern artwork, an artist may make an aesthetic decision regarding the orientation at which the work should be hung, based on their intended message. The correct orientation is often specified on the back of the canvas. However, this intended orientation is not always obvious to others viewing the work, especially if there is no recognisable content at all, which raises questions about aesthetics. Is there sufficient information in a modern artwork for a naïve viewer’s judgement to align with the correct orientation? Is the impact or aesthetic value of a work diminished by viewing at an incorrect orientation?

Or perhaps not.

One thought on “Bottoms Up!

  1. Pingback: January 26~ | The Misty Miss Christy

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