Hidden “Backstories” reveal truth of art

The average art lover or museum visitor is often enraptured with the delicate brushstrokes of a painting or the expert craftsmanship of a porcelain tea set. But sometimes the parts of a work that are hidden to the eye can reveal more history and context than its pristine surface. Backstories, an exhibit at the Clark Art Institute that is on display through April 21, aims to emphasize the importance of the frequently overlooked parts of art works. The exhibit displays an eclectic collection of art works of all different media, including paintings, sculptures, ink drawings and porcelains.  In addition, works by relatively unknown artists sit next to those by Western masters like Vincent Van Gogh and Peter Paul Rubens.

When entering the exhibit, one immediately sees the antique silver treasures of the British Empire. Instead of sitting normally on a flat plane against the wall, as one would expect the works to be displayed, they rest on stands at 45- and 90-degree angles in freestanding cases, so that every inch of the works is visible.

Two types of silverware included in the display are a tea set and a large platter with a diameter of nearly a foot and a half. While both works are of the same medium, one can extrapolate radically different “backstories” to the pieces. The unique display of the tea set reveals a multitude of small symbols, usually hidden from sight, all of which reveal specific things about the work. Makers marked tea sets not only to date and brand them, but also to assure buyers of their quality, with symbols that specifically indicated if the piece was made out of sterling silver or manufactured in London. The back of a platter, on the other hand, that was once used by British aristocrats for washing their hands before dinner, reveals that while craftsmen made ornate designs present at the front of the piece, the back detailing is far less refined, as artisans initially carved the designs from the back and smoothed and perfected them in the front.

In other works, the backs of paintings were single-handedly responsible for releasing vital information. The inscriptions painted on the front frame of The Canon Gilles Joye (1472), a portrait by Hans Memling, dated the portrait for historians. However, without the Latin inscriptions pasted on the back of the painting, they probably would not have been able to identify the man painted, as the text was a eulogy to Joye, who died one year after the portrait was finished.

While Backstories provides much information surrounding history and the physical artistic process, there are also parts of the exhibit that are shrouded in mystery to art historians and museum visitors alike. In the center of the exhibit are two paintings, Portrait of a Gentleman (1530) by Jan Gossaert and Lucretia (1534) by an unknown artist, which are exhibited back-to-back, an oddity considering how most of the other works are displayed. However, their display is due to the fact that they were once together on a single canvas. Lucretia was painted by a different artist, as Gossaert died in 1532.

The contrast between the two paintings is stark. Portrait of a Gentleman is lavish in every way. The colors are rich, with a deep green as the background to a dignified man wearing luxurious furs and clothes of scarlet and gold fabric. Lucretia, if described in one word, is unsettling. The two tones of the painting are black and yellow. The painter depicts Lucretia, a historical figure from ancient Rome, with the youthful facial features of a prepubescent girl yet with a sickly greyish-yellow skin tone. The painting shows her simultaneously disrobing and stabbing herself and her eyes are unfocused and nearly crossed.

Not even art historians know the reason for why these two paintings exist on the same canvas; but perhaps the juxtaposition of the dignified portrait to the depiction of a ghastly girl’s grim death certainly adds to the eeriness of the second painting.

Backstories is a must see for anyone interested in art beyond pure aesthetics. It provides great insight into historical context and production.

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