When it comes to abstract art, hanging a painting the wrong way can be an easy mistake to make. One of the most notable examples is Piet Mondrian's 1941 abstract artwork New York City I, which hung upside down at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for over 75 years before being discovered. Interestingly, the painting remains upside down to this day, due to fears of damaging the delicate artwork if corrected.

Similarly, Mark Rothko's 1958 painting Black on Maroon has also been displayed incorrectly, and in 1994, The Art Newspaper noticed that Salvador Dalí's 1928 work Four Fishermen’s Wives of Cadaqués was hanging upside down at London’s Hayward Gallery. What triggered the discovery? The phallus in the painting pointed downward, which was very unlike Dalí!

While abstract paintings are more prone to such errors, there have actually been cases of representational works being hung upside down as well.

Waterfall or a snowy village?

Paul Gauguin's 1894 painting Breton Village under the Snow has a particularly fascinating story. French writer and ethnographer Victor Segalen, a follower of Gauguin, traveled to Tahiti to meet the artist but arrived shortly after his death in 1903. At an auction of Gauguin’s belongings, Segalen came across an unusual  painting labeled Niagara Falls. He bought it for a small sum and, upon turning it around, realised it depicted a snow-covered French village - not a waterfall.

Van Gogh’s Long Grass and Butterflies (1890)

Sometimes, it's not the experts who catch these errors. In the case of Van Gogh’s Long Grass and Butterflies, it was a 15-year-old schoolgirl who noticed something amiss. The painting, created during Van Gogh’s stay at an asylum in 1890, had been hung upside down after being photographed. The girl, armed with a postcard of the painting, proved her point, and the artwork was corrected within fifteen minutes of the error being made.

The curious case of orientation

These incidents highlight the intriguing nature of perception in art. Abstract and modern art often challenge our perceptions, making it easy to misinterpret their intended direction. While these blunders can be embarrassing for galleries, they also add a layer of humour and humanity to the history of these artworks.

Art is ultimately about perception and interpretation. Sometimes, viewing a painting upside down can offer a fresh perspective, reminding us that mistakes can lead to unexpected beauty and new ways of seeing the world.

Next time you visit a gallery, take a moment to question the orientation of the artworks. You might just spot the next famous upside-down masterpiece!