Archive: Issue No. 87, November 2004

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Unknown Artist
Portrait of a man in a shepherd's guise
Dutch School, Amsterdam, 17th century
oil on panel
Michaelis collection Inv. No. 14/31

Flipping the Old Townhouse
by Colin Boyes

For many Capetonian contemporary art lovers, the Old Town House is a sad and insular museum relegated to the role of venue for stylish weddings and corporate functions. The museum's collection has remained primarily unchanged since its establishment in 1914, culminating in the general consensus 'been there, seen that, got the t-shirt'. Bearing the above in mind it was with general trepidation that I approached the museum's 'new' exhibition curiously entitled 'Flip'.

What has been presented as a world-first and more a curatorial 'intervention' than an actual exhibition, 'Flip' presents the viewer with the reverse sides of early 17th century Dutch paintings. Curated by Andrew Lamprecht, lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and newly appointed editor of ArtThrob, 'Flip' functions on two primary levels.

Firstly it draws attention to the historical nature of the works on display, a factor Lamprecht was quick to point out in an interview conducted with the Mail&Guardian when he stated that, 'Old labels, inscriptions and material have become attached to the paintings over hundreds of years providing clues to their previous ownership, origin, provenance and how they were made'.

Examine, for example, Philip Wouveman's La Charrete Embourer, with its layer upon layer of stuck-on dealer labels giving it more the appearance of a gummed-up public billboard than the reverse side of a painting from one of the most important Dutch collections outside of Europe and the United States. It is quite difficult to comprehend the reason why such an important collection of Dutch genre paintings would have been assembled in South Africas until one considers our colonial heritage.

Both the Afrikaner and English had an avid appreciation of Dutch genre works. The reason for this varied but it was a factor of commonality that was observed by the collection's donor, Sir Max Michaelis, who hoped that it might spark cultural reconciliation between the former foes. With regards to the 'Flip' exhibition you are essentially just looking at the backs of a selection of paintings, which, for the untrained eye, are not very interesting.

Perhaps if some form of explanatory text had accompanied the exhibition, which Lamprecht had originally intended, but was omitted due to insufficient funding, viewers might have remained stimulated. Without such an explanatory aid Lamprecht's curatorial intention of highlighting the historical nature of the works is somewhat undermined.

The second level at which 'Flip' functions is conceptual. As one progresses through the exhibition one cannot help but feel as if you are in the midst of a massive contemporary installation. Indeed Lamprecht's experiment has had major consequences for the existing museum both visually and historically, prompting the supposition that the gallery is not just a space but that it is also a personality. Considering that the Old Town House was refitted in 1914 purely to house the Michaelis Collection, Lamprecht's intervention has somewhat destabilised the museum founder's intentions.

Although the museum remains as it normally would, through the mere reversal of the paintings on display, questions of perception as well as the public's expectation of the traditional gallery space are posed. It is possible to argue that Lamprecht's reversal of the works on display is perhaps an interrogation of their colonial roots, a sort of 'turn-your- back-on-colonialism', if you will.

'Flip' forces you to completely disregard traditional methods of approaching a painting as you are forced to contemplate what has now become the subject of your scrutiny - the three-dimensional elements of the picture. It is the skill of the craftsmen who produced the stretchers and frames that now becomes the subject of the viewer's interest. The paintings on display now function in a manner never intended by the artists who painted them.

The moralising message that so typically underlies Dutch genre painters' realistic portrayal of everyday life is now completely eradicated. In fact, the narratives of paintings like David Tenier's (the younger) Interior of a Peasant Dwelling are only barely maintained through a new intensive relationship between the work itself and the ordinarily ignored wall text accompanying it. As I mentioned earlier, apart from the reversal of the paintings on display, Lamprecht has left the museum unchanged, including the wall texts that provide viewers with a written description of the works.

This text is unavoidably subjective as some of the paintings' elements may be more apparent to other viewers of the works than the individual who wrote the wall texts. Lamprecht's reversal has invested these wall texts with a new found importance as they are the only way for viewers to formulate any conception about what is depicted on the canvas. It would be interesting to see just how close the image generated in one's mind through the reading of the wall text is to the actual painted image on the other side. This creates a possible third aim for the exhibition, which is to make use of the works in an entirely new light, one that is subject to a viewer's imagination.

It has been suggested that 'Flip' caters more for specialists like art historians and curators who tend to be better acquainted with the backs of paintings than the rest of us. I tend to agree with this, but if you are like me and viewing 17th century Dutch genre painting makes you want to kick the inert canvas in order to make it move or at least do something, 'Flip' might just be for you as it makes for fresh and unconventional viewing. As for those who may dismiss 'Flip' as nothing more than a clever conceptual intervention - I would reply that they lacked the foresight it took to come up with such a conceptually intriguing exhibition.

Closed October 31