Epilogue II: The Constables, 2021

Installation view: Cotton Under My Feet, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. 2021
Photo: Moritz Bernoully | TBA21

Installation with seven pigmented inkjet prints, wallpaper
Various dimensions
Commissioned by TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary

Commissioned by TBA21 and specifically conceived for the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the exhibition/performance “Cotton Under My Feet” presented work created during Walid Raad’s three-year exploration of the museum’s collection, archives, and genesis. Mobilizing stories and premonitions around the collection, Raad presented imagined and hidden episodes, tangled connections, and alternative conservation protocols in his exploration of various historical collective realities surrounding the acquisition of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection by the Spanish State in 1992. The result is a non-linear narrative body of work that incorporates installation, performance, photography, and video. 

I discovered these seven photographs in the museum’s basement. When I asked the staff about them, I was told that seven of the museum’s 775 paintings had back-paintings of clouds. I was also informed that these were discovered in 1983 when this collection was still in Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s Swiss villa. They were discovered by Lamia Antonova, the best art restorer of her generation. When she discovered these back paintings, Antonova immediately showed them to the baron, thinking he would know what this is about. But the baron had no idea the clouds were even there because up till then, the backs were covered by wooden panels. Antonova discovered them when she X-rayed the artworks. Ever since he was shown the backs, the baron has forbidden anyone from looking at the fronts. Moreover, in his negotiations with the Spanish state, the baron insisted that these seven paintings travel to Madrid with the rest of the collection, but he never told the museum what is on the fronts. By contract, the museum is not allowed to look at the fronts; nor to X-ray the paintings or show the backs of the paintings. They are only allowed to show these photographs. What we do know about the back paintings today is that they were painted in the 1820s, and they look exactly like the cloud studies made by the nineteenth-century British painter, John Constable. Constable was an early meteorologist, and he wanted clouds to look real in his paintings, not like puffy cotton balls. And so, between 1820 and 1822, he made over 100 beautiful sketches of clouds. But as far as we know, he painted on the backs of other paintings only once and that painting is in the Tate. So, who did this? We don’t know. Are they Constables? We don’t know. What’s on the fronts? We don’t know. – Walid Raad