Genevieve Habert was the only one to realize something was amiss at the Museum of Modern Art’s Henri Matisse exhibition. None of the other 116,000 visitors to the show—which ran from October to December 1961—had noticed that something wasn’t quite right. Nor had MoMA’s experts. Even Matisse’s own son, Pierre, hadn’t spotted it.
But by her third stroll through the exhibition, Habert became filled with what the New York Times described as a “stabbing certainty” that Matisse’s cut-out work Le Bateau (1953) was hanging upside down. With great economy of line, the artist had depicted the outline of a boat and its reflection in the sea below. It appeared, however, that the reflection had been portrayed with more care than the actual boat—a detail Habert found suspicious.
She spent $3.50 ($29 today) on a catalogue and discovered that the work was, in fact, printed the other way around. After dealing with a less-than-helpful guard—“You don’t know what’s up and you don’t know what’s down and neither do we,” he reportedly told Habert—and finding that the relevant MoMA staff had departed for the day, Habert turned to the Times. When MoMA curators finally took another look, they realized Habert was right and flipped the work. The way holes had been drilled into the painting’s frame, however, indicated the New York museum was hardly the first to mishang the Matisse.
“Mrs. Habert should be given a medal,” the painter’s son told the Times.
As the historical record of errors drilled into the back of the Matisse indicates, the correct orientation of an artwork isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it requires archival research—and the results can be more than trivial. Often, they provide valuable insight into our understanding of an artist.
The Jewish Museum, for instance, engaged in some directional detective work of its own as it prepared for a major re-hang of the collection unveiled this January—the first in 25 years. As researchers sifted through the works held by the institution, they ran across some historical debate surrounding the orientation of a 1952 Morris Louis painting known as Untitled (Jewish Star).
“That stimulated us to try and get to the bottom of it,” Jewish Museum curator Stephen Brown told Artsy. The work, which includes the Star of David, was created at a transitional moment in Louis’s career; its figurative elements differ from the artist’s better-known (and fully abstract) Color Field paintings.
Brown and his co-curator, Claudia J. Nahson, were aware of a missing work by Louis titled Man Reaching For a Star. It had been exhibited at Washington D.C.’s Workshop Art Center Gallery in 1953, but all that remained was a written description. So they flipped the Jewish Museum’s painting around, and there it was: the figure of a man reaching for a star.