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23 Jun 20

Verso: revealing the secret life of paintings

Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, shares a story of hidden identities and dual personalities revealed in the NGV’s first acquisition of a German Expressionist painting. The work, by Erich Heckel, was enabled through the generous support of John Downer AM and Rose Downer. In his companion story, Michael Varcoe-Cocks, Head of Conservation, writes about the valuable information gleaned from examining the reverse side of paintings created during the wars.

Erich Heckel’s Great dancing pair (Grosses tanzpaar) (recto), 1923, and Landscape on the fjord (Landschaft an der Förde) (verso), 1939
– Laurie Benson

This painting is as fascinating as it is indicative of the German Expressionist artist Erich Heckel’s personal history and artistic development. It features two fully worked compositions – Great dancing pair (Grosses tanzpaar), from 1923, and on the back of the canvas is a landscape that he painted in 1939. It features the countryside around Flensburg in the far north of Germany where Heckel spent time during the Second World War.

The earlier Great dancing pair is a confident expression of the relatively high spirits felt in Germany at the height of the Weimar Republic. Progressive artists expressed their creativity with a degree of freedom at a time when Germany was again prosperous following the difficulties and depravation it suffered after the First World War, and before the rise of Fascism. Heckel’s work was markedly more decorative than his prewar and wartime Expressionist paintings and prints. In this work, Heckel observes a scene of two excited dancers; however, there is a sense of frenzy and tension expressed by the strong colours, hard angularity of the dancers’ pose and their rigid facial expressions. The way Heckel has treated the band seen in the background of the painting is reminiscent of the work of his close colleague Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

In 1905 Heckel was a co-founder of the German Expressionist Die Brücke group in Dresden with Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fritz Bleyl and Kirchner. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Heckel was immediately declared a Degenerate Artist. His works were removed from German art galleries and some of his paintings were included in the exhibition of Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) that toured Germany in 1937. The aim of that exhibition was to ridicule modern art and incite hatred against progressive thinking. He was also legally forbidden to practise his profession after 1933, although he did continue to paint. Unable to sell their works, and with art supplies critically scarce, it was common for artists to paint over old canvases or use the back of works they were no longer able to sell legally.

At some point Heckel decided to hide Great dancing pair by covering it with a layer of distemper, which was only removed recently. As many of Heckel’s paintings were destroyed during the Second World War – including almost half the paintings he made before 1919 – the discovery of this work marks a wonderful addition to our knowledge of Heckel’s work. Great dancing pair was thought to have been lost or destroyed, so its reemergence is significant. The landscape painted in 1939 would have been considered relatively safe and non-confronting in the eyes of the authorities. Many of Heckel’s works at this time were landscapes and still lifes. This landscape still displays German Expressionist qualities through its use of bold colours, which sharply define many distinct areas of the well-worked countryside. Because the painting remained in Heckel’s possession until he passed away in 1970 it must have been of great personal value to the artist, and he included it in many exhibitions after the war.

The painting is also of particular significance to the NGV. While the Gallery boasts many prints by German Expressionist artists, including Heckel himself, this is the very first painting by a member of that important movement to enter the Collection.

The unique relationship between materiality and artistic expression
– Michael Varcoe-Cocks

One of the less acknowledged yet captivating aspects of historical paintings is their unseen backs, often referred to as the reverse, or ‘verso’. Although delegated to face the wall, the opposing side of a two-dimensional work often accumulates valuable information that helps researchers understand more about an artist’s practice, a work’s provenance and issues of authenticity. While it is common to find labels, stamps, hand-written inscriptions or even misplaced items wedged behind a work, the most treasured versos reveal additional images.

The NGV’s collection of paintings includes an assortment of images that remain obscured from view. The reasons as to why an artist might need to use both sides of a support when only one can be shown will vary, but availability and cost of materials are primary considerations. It is therefore not surprising that recycled supports are particularly prevalent during the early decades of the twentieth century, notably during war eras.

A good example is William Rothenstein’s An artist in France, 1918, purchased directly from the artist in 1921. The picture that appears on display is a self-portrait of the artist in a desolate snow-covered landscape; however, on the other side is a more intimate portrait of an unidentified man in civilian clothing. When the painting was examined by x-radiography, further portraits were discovered between the two outer paintings. This illustrates Rothenstein’s willingness to abandon established compositions, and a need to recycle the canvas for different sitters before ultimately choosing his own image as the final work.

Sometimes it is location that necessitates practicality; when the Melbourne-based painter Ellen Rubbo travelled to north-east Victoria and painted Ovens Valley, Bright, c. 1946, she chose hardboard as a lightweight support that was easy to transport, and also accommodated working on both sides. On the back a plein air sketch records the artist and her co-travellers with easels positioned on the side of an alpine road. Ovens Valley, Bright was a finalist in the prestigious Wynne Prize, and the sketch that has survived on the reverse of its surrogate helps document the collegial environment of the modernist movement at the end of the Second World War.

In many cases it is simply the artist’s prerogative to paint on the verso of a work, and it is common to observe idiosyncratic patterns of behaviour across a group of works by an individual artist. Some practitioners show a fastidious attention to material preparation that would never accommodate the informal recycling of an existing work. In contrast, in the case of Sidney Nolan’s Wimmera series, 1942–44, there is a speed of execution and spirit of experimentation that lends itself to unexpected results. While assigned to a military supply company, Nolan captured the surrounding landscape and its inhabitants with strong colouring and minimal form, as seen in Lagoon, Wimmera, 1943. The reverse of this board holds a second scene depicting a military figure watering a lawn, while in the distance a railway line leads to industrial buildings set against a barren landscape. Nolan observed the diffraction of light in the sprayed water similarly to the way he recorded reflections in the lagoon of the final work. The consciously primitive style adopted by Nolan makes it difficult to determine whether the reverse composition was ever completed and, unfortunately, it was later partly obscured by white paint.

Although not destined for display, the unfinished sketches found on the reverse of paintings offer important insights into artistic practice. They survive as physical remnants of an editorial process that show decisions and priorities otherwise not recorded. Examples such as these are a reminder of the unique relationship between materiality and artistic expression that forms the basis of art.

This was originally commissioned for and published in the Nov–Dec 2015 issue of NGV Magazine (formerly Gallery magazine).

Laurie Benson is Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Michael Varcoe-Cocks is Head of Conservation, National Gallery of Victoria