A Mondrian original painting has likely been hanging upside down in various collections for over seventy years years, but who could tell?

Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter born in 1872, is widely held as one of the pioneers of 20th-century abstract art, with many of his paintings being made only of simple geometric features.

“Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality,” Mondrian wrote in 1914. “To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise it would have no value for man.”

“New York City” is a 1941 work by Mondrian, made of rows of red, blue, and yellow tape woven across a backdrop painted white. Since 1945, across several museums and galleries, it has been hung with the five most evenly spaced lines spanning the bottom. Since its title suggests it depicts a city – with streets below and buildings above, the orientation made some sense.

At the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf, Germany, it has long been displayed beside “Woods Near Oele,” a much more representative painting also by Mondrian, this one of a park-like scene. The two are complementary, featuring similar colors and proportions – those five close lines in “New York City” balance nicely with the rows and lights at the bottom of “Woods Near Oele.”

But a recently uncovered photo taken of Mondrian’s studio, from shortly after his 1944 death, “New York City” can be seen still on the artist’s easel. In the photograph, the 5 close lines are at the top of the canvas.

Curator Susanne Meyer-Büser agrees that the photo is likely proof that the painting has always been displayed upside down from what the artist intended, but says for conservation reasons, it is too late to correct the matter. The tape is already frail, its adhesive long gone. The painting would take much work to handle being hung any other way now.

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