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"Works from Renaissance to 20th-Century Highlight How Artists and their Workshops Used Both Sides of the Sheet "
2001-05-19 until 2001-08-12
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard
Cambridge, MA, USA

The first exhibition of drawings to focus primarily on the relationship between the front and the back of the works will be shown at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum from May 19 to August 12, 2001. Encompassing drawings by 33 artists ranging from the Renaissance to the present and including artists such as Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, and Claes Oldenburg, Verso: The Flip Side of Master Drawings breaks from the traditional display of these works as two-dimensional objects on gallery walls and shows them on pedestals so that both sides (recto and verso) can be fully appreciated.

The unusual display allows viewers to trace the creative process as an artist sketched from one side of the sheet to the other, to see how works were copied by assistants in Renaissance workshops, and to understand the increasing shift toward a conscious use of paper as a three-dimensional object in the twentieth century. The exhibition was organized by James G. Harper, who was a curatorial intern at the Fogg in 1998–99, and is now assistant professor of art history at the University of Oregon.

Verso includes works by some of the most well known figures in the history of art, among them Filippino Lippi, Perugino, Michelangelo, Veronese, Agostino Carracci, Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jacques-Louis David, John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Henry Moore, David Smith, and Claes Oldenburg.

One of our roles in the arts and academic community is to foster opportunities for creative scholarship, said James Cuno, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. This previously unexplored approach exposes works almost always hidden from the observer and provokes many questions, including ‘Which side is the recto and which is the verso, and who decidesNULL’

The terms recto and verso originally come from the world of manuscripts. Folio recto was the right leaf of an open book, from the Latin for right or straight. Folio verso was the turned leaf, the one on the left. As the opposite of right, verso took on a negative connotation as the less desirable side. This exhibition questions the assumption that one side of a drawing is preferable to the other.

Ideally I would want every visitor to pick up a Michelangelo drawing, examine it closely, and then flip it over to discover what’s on the other side, said the exhibition’s organizer, James Harper, former Lynn and Philip A. Straus Curatorial Intern in the Department of Drawings. Obviously, however, such physical contact is impractical for reasons of conservation. In this installation the motion of flipping the sheet is replaced by the motion of the viewer, who can change his own viewpoint as he walks around to the other side of the drawing.

The development of the recto-verso relationship is closely related to the history of paper, which was widely used in Europe only from the sixteenth century. At first, the scarcity of the new resource pushed artists to use a sheet to its fullest: in many cases they crammed both recto and verso with sketches, architectural plans, and notes. Sometimes they drew on the backs of letters or receipts, which can help date the drawings. Even when paper was more accessible, many artists continued to use both sides out of convenience. The artist did not usually designate one side as recto; that decision was often left to dealers, collectors, or curators. Sometimes the designation for a particular drawing changed over the years, depending on the owners’ preferences, and the changes help art historians trace the development of taste.

The objects in the exhibition fall into groups that are united by theme rather than time period. Major themes that emerge include artistic personality, creative process, and workshop practice. A landscape on one side of a sheet and a satirical drawing on the other, for instance, tell us something about the range of Pier Francesco Mola’s interests in a given period of the mid-17th- century. A drawing from the workshop of Carlo Cignani that is smeared with red chalk on one side shows us how drawings were transferred to another surface using a carbon copy method. Among 20th-century artists, Claes Oldenburg demonstrated his awareness of the drawing as a two-sided object by using a sheet of paper to represent a window. He treated one side of the sheet as the outside of a store window, with a poster advertising cakes, and the other as representing what was inside the store.

Accompanying Verso: The Flip Side of Master Drawings is a fully illustrated and annotated catalogue by Harper, including an introductory essay.

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