Both Sides Now; On The Pleasures And Perils Of Cataloging Two-Sided Art

There’s two sides to every argument, but are there two sides to every artwork? Actually, there are. We usually fall into the habit of thinking about art objects as being neatly divisible into three-dimensional (sculpture, baskets, armor, etc.) and two-dimensional (paintings, prints, photographs, etc.). But the truth is that no tangible thing is actually two-dimensional; there’s always another side, the B-side, the back of the canvas, the other side of the print. When we’re cataloging our artworks, how do we handle the other side?

For some types of objects, the other side is well understood and has its own vocabulary and method of analysis. Take coins, for example: there’s an obverse and a reverse side, each of which may have been designed by a different artist, and we’re accustomed to turning the coin over to make sure we’ve captured any salient reverse-side characteristics. With a painted canvas, though, the process of describing the other side is not always pursued so assiduously. In some cases that’s because the other side is truly blank; there’s nothing to say about it. Other times, there might be a few marks that could be noted as part of the object record: prior accession numbers, pencil notations from an auction house, sometimes even the artist’s signature. But what happens when the other side constitutes an object in its own right?

Leonardo da Vinci

Credits: National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.

Leonardo da Vinci

Credit: National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. NB: you can download a higher resolution version of NGA images by registering on their website.

The best example of this is of a canvas painted on both sides, and these are more common than you might imagine. When an artist is in need of a canvas, they sometimes reach for an earlier work of which they’ve repented, re-frame the canvas, turn the back into the front, and go at it. My favorite example is The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, by Marcel Duchamp, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duchamp painted this 1912 cubist masterpiece on the back of his 1911 painting Paradise, a work in a very different style. Philadelphia displays the work in a walk-around vitrine that allows museum visitors to experience both sides of the canvas. Then there’s the National Gallery of Art’s Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper, by Leonardo da Vinci, resting on the canvas back of his much better known Ginevra de’ Benci, both painted around 1478. Since Leonardo’s don’t show up in one’s collection every day, the staff at the NGA have carefully tracked this two-sided canvas as if it were two separate collection objects…which, in many ways, it is.

The history of two-sided canvases also has its darker side; when artists, unintentionally or intentionally, obscure the work of another in order to produce their own creation. The contemporary history of this activity is beyond the scope of what I can cover in this article, but I have often contemplated whether some of Jackson Pollock’s greatest works weren’t literally created across the back of an occluded Krasner.

There are some significant collection management issues around two-sided works, and these have to do with their dual existence within the collection. For example, you would generally obtain one, not two, insurance policies to cover damage during shipment and loan for the combined work, and there would be one, not two, valuations covering the entire entity. The two sides likely have the same provenance, unless one side was created much later than the other. One side of the canvas could have a very different exhibition history, as the “A” side basked in the glory (and suffered the light exposure) of multiple exhibitions, while its twin stood silently facing a blank wall. Yet while you could exhibit one side or the other, you would store and ship both sides simultaneously.

The challenge of two-sided art is to track this information accurately and consistently. A good collections management system will provide functionality to catalogue and track “inseparable objects” of this type.

About the Author:

Danielle Uchitelle
Danielle has worked for over 25 years in academic and non-profit administration and has over 15 years of museum experience, including 7 years at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. At Gallery Systems, in her role as Chief Operating Officer, Danielle is responsible for managing client support, training, documentation, and custom services. In addition to her professional background in museum administration, Danielle holds an MBA degree from New York University and an MLIS degree from Columbia University,

2 Comments

  1. Tom Flynn June 11, 2015 at 2:00 am - Reply

    Very useful article, Danielle, thanks for sending the link. As you say, an oft-neglected aspect of art appraisal. I must try to get to see that Leonardo and the Duchamp some time.

  2. Susana López July 13, 2015 at 8:00 am - Reply

    When accessing two-sided objects to the collection, do museums usually favour two different accession numbers or just one?
    At the National Art Museum of Catalonia we give a single accession number to the object, but we create two files in our collection management system, with the same accession number followed by letters A and B for each side. We do that for paintings, drawings, coins…. I’d like to know what other museums do. The examples of Leonardo and Duchamp, do they have the same number for both faces or different numbers?

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