A New Exhibition at Madrid’s Prado Museum Presents Backwards Paintings

Some of the show's works displays hidden and complementary art on their backsides, while others are littered with labels and stamps telling historical stories.

Things are turning around for Madrid’s Prado Museum. In an exhibition opening today (Nov. 7), the art institution is flipping some of its most renowned masterpieces around to showcase their backs.

Image of exhibition room with black walls filled with paintings turned backwards
The exhibition On the Reverse will run until March 2024. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado.

The show, aptly named On the Reverse, encourages “visitors to look beyond pictorial execution and see paintings as complete objects,” according to the Prado. Not all works on display will be reversed; some paintings will depict the backs of artwork in studios or showcase images of the public admiring hanging works.

Located in gallery rooms painted black especially for the show, the exhibition will offer a new take on more than 100 works pulled from Prado’s collection and loaned by art institutions like Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. It will also mark the museum’s debut of artists such as Van Gogh, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Liebermann, who have never been seen at the Prado.

Image of exhibition room with black walls filled with paintings turned backwards
A view of the exhibition galleries. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado.

On the Reverse is structured into ten sections focusing on the concept of “reversal.” A life-size reproduction of the back of Diego Velazquez’s famed 1656 painting Las Meninas will open the show. The canvas was created by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who has previously experimented with reversal recreations through his Verso series. In 2016, his replicas of the flip sides of paintings like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Starry Night starred in a show at the Mauritshuis Museum.

Meanwhile, other portions of the show focus on the hidden annotations and inscriptions scribbled by artists on the backs of their artwork. Another section centering upon painting stretchers will showcase the original cross beams from the stretcher of Pablo Picasso’s 1937 Guernica.

Two photos of front and back of painting, one showing kneeling nun, other showing nun lifting her garments to reveal her bottom
The obverse and reverse of Martin van Meytens’ Kneeling Nun, (circa 1731). Stockholm, Nationalmuseum

Turning artwork around to discover hidden paintings

Some reversals are works of art in themselves. The back of Martin van Meyten’s Kneeling Nun, for example, cheekily complements the work’s depiction of a praying nun with a painting showcasing the nun pulling up her robe to reveal her bottom. The flip side of a painting by Annibale Carracci shows the faintest trace of figurative drawings in various sizes.

Still, other works in On the Reverse tell stories through the information stuck to their backs. The reverse of a Salomon Koninck work contains an obituary press cutting and labels indicating its presence in London’s Stafford Gallery and its ownership by a Jewish art collector whose artwork was later seized by the Nazis.

Back of two paintings, one depicting a drawing and another covered in stamps and old papers.
The reverse of The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalen / Sketches of figures by Annibale Carracci and students. The reverse of A Philosopher by Salomon Koninck. La Coruña, Museo de Belas Artes da Coruña, depósito del Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

A few flipped paintings will focus on how mediums and alterations applied to the front of an artwork affect its rear, examining the reverse view of textiles, oil-soaked canvases and restorations. The Prado also displays a selection of works using uncommon materials like copper, brick, porcelain and ivory as support.

The show’s curator, Miguel Angel Blanco, created several works for the exhibition. Using the dust that fell when the Prado removed Giovanni Francesco Penni’s The Transfiguration from its walls after several decades, the artist accumulated the leftover powder to create three box books.

“This exhibition goes beyond the simple action of turning paintings around,” said the Prado in a statement. The museum is “undertaking a complete reassessment of the backs of works in its collections while also identifying relevant examples in other major museums which reveal how appreciation of art is enhanced when we do more than just look at the front.”

On the Reverse will be on display until March 3, 2024.

A New Exhibition at Madrid’s Prado Museum Presents Backwards Paintings