WILLIAMSTOWN -- When casual museum visitors look at a work of art, they see one interpretation of the creator’s intent. When curators who installed the same piece look at it, they see another side. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute will bring these two worlds together in its latest winter exhibition, "Backstories: The Other Side of Art."
The show, which opens Saturday and runs through April 21, will uncover these hidden sides, revealing how these works were made, cared for by collectors, survived, and more on the period during which they were created. The exhibition spans five centuries and includes paintings, works on paper, sculpture, silver, and porcelain. Reflecting on the back as an artistic theme, it will also present images of human and animal backs.
According to Camran Mani, curator of the exhibition and former curatorial associate at the Clark, the public often thinks of works of art as images on a computer screen or a postcard.
"’Backstories’ reminds us that they are real, tangible objects with stories to tell," Mani said from Harvard University, where he is currently a Ph.D. candidate. "Those stories are not always obvious when one looks at the front of a painting, drawing, or decorative object, but examining them as three dimensional objects, turning them over and inspecting the back or the bottom, allows us to unlock some of those secrets.
Most works in the exhibition will be displayed on pedestals, allowing visitors to view them on all sides. In addition, several pieces of decorative art will be showcased for their special inscriptions or other features that may have gone unnoticed in a typical exhibition setting.
Richard Rand, the Clark’s senior curator, said he has long wanted to do an exhibition about the backs of works of art, and since Mani was very interested in the concept, they agreed the latter should serve as the curator. The team decided early on to include not just flat works (paintings, drawings, and prints), but examples from all collecting areas of the Clark.
"At some basic level, the work of art is a physical object that needs to be understood in three dimensions," Rand said. "This is what distinguishes the actual work from the reproductive image. No curator would be completely satisfied with knowing an object just from its front. So when we came up with the ClarkNOW program, with its special emphasis on presenting the Clark’s collections in new and engaging ways, it seemed like the perfect time to do it."
One of these new ways is illustrated by a pair of 16-century oil paintings on panel. They show how the back of an object can yield important clues as to how, when, and by whom it was created. "Portrait of a Gentleman" (c. 1530), attributed to Jan Gossaert, and "Lucretia" (1534), artist unknown, were originally painted on two sides of a single panel.
At some point before entering the Clark’s collection, the panel was split in two, creating two distinct works. Rand said it has been assumed that the front side, a portrait of a lavishly dressed anonymous sitter who was possibly associated with the court of the Duke of Burgundy, was painted by Gossaert.
However, Rand continued, the reverse of the painting is dated 1534, two years after Gossaert’s death, bringing into question the attribution of both sides of the painting. "Lucretia," also reveals important information about preservation and artistic practice in 16th-century Flanders. During this period, panels were often painted on both sides to protect the wood from moisture and worm damage.
"Lucretia" is painted in grisaille - tones of gray that simulate the appearance of sculpture - perhaps to spare the expense of costly pigments and to emphasize the antique origins of Lucretia’s story. According to legend, Lucretia’s rape and suicide helped spur the revolution that established the Roman Republic.
"There are several works I could cite, but I would pick the Jan Gossaert portrait of a man with its back painted in grisaille showing the suicide of Lucretia," Rand said. "These two paintings were originally two sides of the same panel, but had long ago split apart and transferred to canvas. I have wanted to place them back to back ever since I arrived at the Clark. If the two halves of the painting had been forever separate, we would know a lot less about their original meaning."
A rough draft
"Backstories" also includes a small suite of pictures in which modern artists, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, and others, present images in which the subjects have their backs to the viewer.
Rand said the show was a "sort of rough draft," a possible precursor to a more comprehensive examination of duality in art, and drawing from the Clark’s permanent collection. A larger show, which Rand said the Clark could pursue in the future, would also involve loans from other institutions and a published catalog.
In all, Rand emphasized "Backstories" will give the public a chance to examine the inner world of both artist and curator.
"There is a great deal to learn by examining the work of art from all sides," he said. "We can only truly understand a work if we experience it and engage with it as a physical object."
"Backstories: The Other Side of Art," opens Saturday and runs through April 21 at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Info: 413-458-2303, clarkart.edu.