Last week, we were invited by Brazilian Ambassador in Vienna, Ricardo Neiva Tavares, Stella Rollig, the Belvedere director and Harald Krejic, Curator, to attend the pre-opening of the exhibition “Verso”, from Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, at the Upper Belvedere.
The wonderful location, the Baroque palace Belvedere, which is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site and houses amazing art collections of Austrian fine Art, the most famous being Klimt’s “The Kiss”, and also international artists such as Monet and Van Gogh among others, is one of the most beautiful Baroque Palaces in Europe and a much beloved landmark in Vienna.
The artist Vik Muniz was born in São Paulo and lives between New York and Rio de Janeiro. He began his career as a sculptor but then started exploring materials such as sugar, chocolate syrup, diamonds and even garbage, to create images that are captured by his lens. His photographic works are part of collections of museums such as the MoMA in New York and the Tate in London.
Despite being a world-renowned artist, Vik Muniz is an extremely accessible and nice person. At the pre-opening of his exhibition, he tells us about his first visit to a museum as a child. He was taken to the MASP, Museum of Art of São Paulo, that was designed by modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi. The architect suspended the paintings that were mounted in glass panels and looked as if they were floating in the air. Vik Muniz remembers that, as he walked through the rows of paintings, he was more fascinated by their backs than by the paintings themselves, thinking that they looked like medieval machines.
40 years later, as he was at the Guggenheim New York, he saw with the same childlike fascination, the painting “Woman Ironing” by Pablo Picasso, that was leaning face down against the wall, waiting to be hung. He says he felt he shouldn’t be there, “as though I was in the presence of somebody I knew very well and saw that person naked. It was very intimate.”. He asked Lisa Dennison, who was the museum’s director at the time, the permission to photograph the back of the painting and that was how his 15-year-long project, Verso, began.
He photographed the back of world-famous masterpieces such as Da Vinci’s “The Mona Lisa”, “The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d”Avignon”.
Vik Muniz wanted to show in an exhibition life-size photos of these paintings’ backsides but he thought that wouldn’t be enough, so he decided to make perfect three-dimensional replicas of them.
His fascination and excitement are contagious as he goes on explaining that the back of the paintings, that we normally don’t see because they are facing the museum’s walls, tell a story. You can tell for instance, from the stamps on the back, all the different museums they have travelled to.
Vik Muniz and his team have painstakingly reproduced all the smallest details of the back of these masterpieces, the wooden beams, the nails, the canvas ( which material sometimes didn’t exist anymore so it had to be weaved again by experts in the same way it was done centuries earlier), the grains and hammer marks on the wood, the smallest marks and folds on the fading stamps, everything is absolutely identical to the original. He also tells us how this amazing project is not his work but a work of all the numerous people involved in it, from the museum’s directors who granted him the access to the paintings (sometimes taking up to 6 years of insistence and persuasion, as with The Mona Lisa), to the handlers or the people who recreated the nails, the stickers, the glue and so on.
The Mona Lisa was actually one of the most challenging pieces of this exhibition. Muniz had to buy an entire tree from Tennessee to be able to meticulously copy the frame with the exact same grains as the wood used in the original frame. He also had to get from the same producer, an electronic device that is placed on the back of the painting to measure the gap that was closed by conservators in the 19th century with a butterfly joint. The artist was asked to take his replica to the Louvre and when it was placed beside the authentic painting, the technicians who are responsible of taking care of it thought that the original one was Muniz’s copy!
For the Belvedere exhibition, Vik Muniz added 2 new pieces: The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt and “The Embrace” by Egon Schiele, which by the way, hangs next to it’s back-side-copy in the intervention at the Belvedere.
Interestingly, Muniz chooses not to hang his work as one would expect in an exhibition, but he leaves them on the floor, leaning on the walls as if the exhibition were still being prepared. He then recalls laughing when his wife’s boss, designer Valentino, came to see his Verso exhibition. When he arrived and only saw the back of the paintings there on the floor, he thought he was too early and left without knowing that that installation was in fact, the exhibition.
The several-times-awarded documentary “Wasteland” about the thought-provoking and beautiful work that Vik Muniz did in 2010, will also be shown at the Belvedere. He spent 2 years in Rio de Janeiro’s huge garbage dump, Gramacho, which was the largest in South America and had more than 5.000 rubbish-pickers who survived selling anything they'd scavenged that could be recycled by the several factories around the landfill. Muniz wanted to show the world how this forgotten community lived and give them an opportunity to transform the garbage they picked into art, and in the process, transform themselves and regain their pride and dignity.
After the pre-opening of the exhibition, the Ambassador Ricardo Neiva Tavares and his wife Cecilia Tavares hosted a reception at their wonderful home within walking distance from the Belvedere, where we were served the most delicious typical Brazilian dishes and of course, the famous Caipirinha. The Brazilian Ambassador's residence at the neoclassical Palais Rothschild is furnished with several art pieces collected in Japan, where the Ambassador served before, stunning modernist furniture and modern paintings belonging to the couple, all mixed with perfection and flair with the classical Embassy’s furniture and architecture.
Photos via Belvedere ®Johannes Stoll