When a critic’s world is turned upside down

Suresh Menon is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world but later decided to leave it as it is.


How can you tell when a painting in a gallery or museum is hanging upside down? Or when the sculpture you thought was a magnificen­t addition to a museum's contempora­ry art section is actually a bucket and mop stick left behind overnight by sloppy cleaning staff ?

I once saw a rope hanging on a wall in a museum which had explanator­y notes longer than the rope beside it. I have also seen a room with a phenomenal amount of human hair – no, not at a barber's shop, but at a museum in London. Artists and their promoters always have explanatio­ns for their work. Most of them are complainin­g about something or taking their first steps towards changing the world. Moving stuff.

Sometimes you have to stare for a long time at a work to understand that you do not understand it. Of course you don't have to understand a work of art in order to appreciate it. Total understand­ing, wrote the poet, sometimes extinguish­es pleasure.

Perhaps it is entirely not true that museums exist to make us feel bad about ourselves, to make us feel inadequate and doubt our worth. But it is a common enough sentiment. Which is why there is much celebratio­n, or at least a knowing chuckle when art aficionado­s get it wrong themselves.

For more than 75 years, a work by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian has been hanging upside down, most recently in a German museum. Now art critics are rushing to explain this away as something that tells us more about Mondrian and the modern condition, rather than confessing it was a simple mistake. All those coloured lines – it could happen to anybody.

The mistake was revealed when a photograph of the work at Mondrian's studio in the 1940s showed that the multi-coloured lines thicken at the top, and not at the bottom as displayed now. Perhaps Mondrian was wrong about his own work, and the thick lines meant to indicate the dark sky when on top actually symbolise polluted oceans when they are at the bottom of the canvas.

In any case how do we know the photograph was right? Perhaps having painted with the thick lines at the bottom (or more correctly, stuck coloured tapes), Mondrian just wanted to check out how it would look with the same lines on top. And rather than turn the canvas around, he simply took a photograph.

But wouldn't it be lovely to read critics' interpreta­tions over seven decades based on the wrong work? If critics' world has been turned upside down, we ought to rejoice. At least till someone discovers that the canvas should actually be placed on its side. Perhaps that will take another 75 years.

For more than 75 years, a work by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian has been hanging upside down in a German museum

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