Hoaxes Throughout History
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Satirical Art Hoaxes

The goal of a satirical art hoax is to call into question the judgement of art critics. The hoax involves presenting a critic with a work for evaluation. If the critic determines that the piece displays talent and skill, the hoaxer then reveals that the work actually came from an unexpected source that couldn't have had such skill. For instance, it might have been the work of an animal such as a donkey or chimpanzee. Or a six-year-old child. Or perhaps the hoaxer himself created it, having purposefully made it as bad as possible. Whatever the case may be, the implication is that the critic is a fraud, unable to discern true ability.

This type of hoax became popular in the early 20th century, as art became increasingly abstract, leading to a growing gap between what leading art critics were labeling as worthy art, and the older, more traditional concept of what art should be. Similar hoaxes began occurring in literature (particularly poetry) at the same time.

However, these satirical art hoaxes draw upon a much older tradition (dating back well into the Middle Ages) of mocking academics and intellectuals who have spent so much time in their ivory tower that they've lost touch with the everyday world. In this way, these satires tell an appealing, timeless story about the superiority of the common sense of regular folk over the judgement of the learned and supposedly wise.

Sneaking Into Museums
A variant of the satirical art hoax involves a hoaxer sneaking one of his own works into a museum and hanging it on the wall. If the museum directors don't immediately notice it as being out of place, this implicitly suggests that they accepted it as worthy of being in the museum. Again, this calls into question their standards of judgement because under normal circumstances, knowing the true authorship of the work, they would not have allowed the work in the museum, but when its already there, they assume it belongs.

Upside-Down Art

Le Bateau (right-side up)
A phenomenon that's closely related to satirical art hoaxes, in that it's perceived as demonstrating the hollowness of art criticism, is the history of art shows mistakenly displaying artworks upside-down. Famous examples of this include The Fossil Hunters by Edwin Dickinson (accidentally hung sideways when exhibited in 1928), Pink Lilies by Margaret Gest (which won a prize in 1936 despite being displayed upside-down), and Le Bateau by Henri Matisse (accidentally hung upside-down for 47 days in 1947 at the Museum of Modern Art). The Apesheet website lists even more examples of this phenomenon.
Examples of Satirical Art Hoaxes
The painting "Sunset over the Adriatic" won praise from critics when it was displayed at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in March 1910. It was said to be the work of J.R. Boronali, proponent of a new school of painting called "excessivism". One collector offered to buy the work for 400 francs. But after a few days the truth was revealed. Boronali was actually a donkey named Lolo who had "painted" by having a brush tied to his tail. The stunt was dreamed up by art critic Roland Dorgelès as a way to play a joke on his Impressionist painter friends. [A World Elsewhere]
Paul Jordan Smith, a Los Angeles-based novelist, was upset that his wife's art was panned by critics as being too "old school". So he devised an elaborate spoof of modern art. He submitted crude works of his own creation to exhibitions, claiming they were the work of a Russian artist Pavel Jerdanowitch (a name he had invented), the founder of the Disumbrationist School of Art (another invention of his). As anticipated, the works were praised by critics. When Smith revealed the hoax to the LA Times in 1927, he argued that it showed that the art currently in fashion was "poppycock" promoted by critics who knew very little about art. More…

Bruno Hat (1929)

A 1929 exhibition of Bruno Hat's paintings described him as a "newly discovered" artist who had recently moved from Lubeck to Clymping, Sussex, where his talent had been spotted while he was working in a general store. Exhibition guests received a pamphlet, "Approach to Hat," signed by "A.R. de T.", which declared that Hat was "the first signal of the coming world movement towards the creation of Pure Form." In reality, Hat was the creation of London socialite Brian Howard, designed as a spoof on abstract art. The London press played up the exhibition as "an amazing hoax on art experts." Though it's not clear if anyone was actually fooled. [Leicester Galleries]
New York Times art editor Edward Alden Jewell, while judging the spring show of the National Academy of Design, singled out a work by new artist "A. Gamio" for special praise. The work, titled "Mrs. Katz of Venice, Cal," showed an old woman peering over the top of her spectacles while holding a magazine. The praise thrilled well-known artist Hugo Ballin, even though his own entry in the show had been dismissed by Jewell as "vulgar," because Ballin actually was "A. Gamio." He had submitted the work as a hoax to show that Jewell would praise any work done in the "modern" style.
The illustrator Hugh Troy was convinced that most of the people at New York's Van Gogh exhibit were there out of lurid interest in the man who had cut off his ear, not out of a true appreciation for the art. To prove his point, he fashioned a fake ear out of a piece of dried beef and mounted it in a velvet-lined shadow box. He snuck this into the museum and stood it on a table in the Van Gogh exhibit. Beside the box he placed a sign: "This is the ear which Vincent Van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888." Sure enough, it drew a large crowd. More…
For several days in 1936, a work titled "Abstract Painting of Woman" hung in London's International Surrealist Exhibition. The work, signed "D.S. Windle" (i.e. D Swindle), was "a phantasmagoria of paint blobs, vari-colored beads, a piece of sponge, Christmas tinsel, a cigarette stub and pieces of hair." But it was taken down when stylistically conservative painter B. Howitt Lodge revealed it was his creation, designed as "a protest against one of the most warped and disgusting shows I have ever attended." The organizers of the exhibition said that although Howitt Lodge may have intended the work as a hoax, it was nevertheless genuine surrealist art.
When his painting Opus No. 1 was accepted into the annual exhibition of the Art League of Springfield, Mass., Henry J.P. Billings promptly announced his resignation from the League. The work, he said, had been a deliberate attempt to draw badly. He fumed that "Juries should be selected who have background enough to distinguish good from bad in modern art." But his joke backfired when it was discovered he had copied his "horrible" painting from a stained glass window design by the acclaimed French artist Georges Desvallières. A Time magazine correspondent noted that the jurors evidently "saw the good of Desvallières shining through the bad of Billings." More…
A French farmer found a marble sculpture buried in his turnip field. Art experts hailed it as a great discovery and identified it as a Greco-Roman work from the 1st century BC. But when arrangements were made to transfer the statue to Paris, a little-known artist named Francesco Cremonese came forward and revealed that he had made the statue and buried it two years ago. As proof, he had the matching arm and nose, chiseled from the piece before he placed it in the ground. Cremonese explained that he had created the statue to demonstrate that his lack of recognition as an artist was undeserved, and that he was just as good as the masters of antiquity.
When an Italian nobleman produced a painting that appeared to be Leonardo Da Vinci's "Madonna with Cat" (long rumored to exist) experts hailed it as a masterpiece and made it the centerpiece of a 1939 exhibit about Da Vinci in Milan. But after the show ended, the painting mysteriously disappeared, and it only resurfaced in 1990 when Cesare Tubino, a Turin painter, died and it was found hanging in his bedroom. In his will, Tubino explained that he had painted the "Madonna with Cat" and not Da Vinci. Italy's fascist government had banned Tubino from exhibiting his own work. So this had been his way of fooling the experts and secretly displaying his work.

Naromji (1946)

In November 1946, the Los Angeles Art Association included a painting titled "Three Out of Five", by a previously unknown artist, Naromji, in an exhibition of abstract art. The work hung beside works by well-known modern artists and was given a price tag of $1000. But the Art Association was embarrassed when, at the end of the month, the publicist/prankster Jim Moran revealed that he was the true author of the painting. Naromji was Moran spelled backwards, with a ji "added for confusion." The title, "Three Out of Five," referred to a brand of hair restorer since, Moran said, abstract painting made him want to "tear his hair." More…
The painting "Figure of Eight, Skegness" (referring to a roller coaster at the Skegness amusement park) was displayed at a public library art exhibition in Loughborough, England. Critics praised it as a "fine specimen of modernism in colour." But then its creator was revealed to be 6-year-old Tommy Warbis from Barrow-on-Soar. Tommy had plastered a piece of white paper with multi-colored paints and then allowed his pet cat Jill to sit in the middle while the paint was still wet. Tommy's father, a commercial artist who disliked modern art, had been invited to submit work to the show and sent his son's work instead "as a joke to test people's knowledge of art."

Mermaid (1954)

A 3-week exhibition of modern art in Birmingham town hall included a piece by a previously unknown artist, Jan Michel, which won praise for its picassolike features. Only as the show was closing did Ronald Allin, a musician with the Birmingham city orchestra, reveal that "Jan Michel" was actually his 8-year-old son Michael. The father had told his son to paint "anything he liked" and then secretly included the result in the exhibition. He titled the piece "Mermaid" because the image bore a vague resemblance to that mythical creature. The exhibition director said it was a pity the joke was only revealed on the last day because "it might have attracted more people."
Robert Webb, a car mechanic in Richmond, Surrey, welded together some pieces of scrap metal and sent the resulting work, as a joke, to a prominent London art gallery. To his surprise, not only was the work accepted, but it resulted in a £105 commission from a wealthy collector to do a "nautical scene" in old iron.
A giant steel block lost its form while being hammered at a factory. Instead of melting it down and recasting it, the workmen decided that it looked like a piece of abstract art. So they polished it up and submitted it to the Documenta III art and design exhibition in Kassel, Germany. When the directors of the exhibition discovered it was the result of an industrial accident, they had it removed from the show.
Paintings by a previously unknown avant-garde French artist named Pierre Brassau, exhibited at an art show in Sweden, won praise from critics, one of whom described Brassau's work as having "the delicacy of a ballet dancer." What the critics didn't know was that Brassau was actually a chimpanzee named Peter from Sweden's Boras zoo. A journalist had come up with the idea of exhibiting Peter's work as a way of putting critics to the test — would they be able to tell the difference between modern art and chimpanzee art? To the great amusement of the press, the critics failed the test. More…
Three students from the north-east Essex technical college at Colchester welded together bits of exhaust pipe and other pieces of metal. Then, posing as delivery men, they took their creation to the Colchester Art Society's show of modern art, where it was accepted without question and placed on display in the center of the exhibition. One of the hoaxers, John Everett, said, "We were staggered when they accepted it so easily." But the secretary of the Art Society took the deception with good humor, saying, "If this exhibit is going to attract crowds I am all in favor of leaving it where it is." [The Age]
At the 12th Annual Mid-Mississippi Art Competition, held in October 1974, there were gasps of surprise when artist Alexis Boyar walked up to the stage to receive the blue ribbon and $50 cash prize he had won for his entry in the weaving category. The shock wasn't caused by the art. Rather, it was caused by the artist himself since he was a 6-year-old Afghan hound dog. His owners explained that the weaving had originally been an old mitten Alexis found during a walk in the park which he chewed into a "rather interesting shape." They elaborated, "We thought it was interesting enough to enter in competition, but we were surprised when it won a prize." More…
In 1984, the city of Livorno spent $35,000 to dredge a canal in an attempt to find sculptures by Amedeo Modigliani rumored to have been dumped there back in 1909. To the city's delight, three carved heads were fished out and were appraised by experts as worth $1.5 million. But then three university students revealed they had made one of the heads as a joke, using a screwdriver and drill. They had a video to prove it. Hopes that the other two heads were genuine were dashed when local dockworker (and former art student) Angelo Froglia proved to be their creator. He said he did it "to reveal the false values of art critics and the mass media."
Graffiti-artist Banksy surreptitiously hung one of his own paintings, a Warhol-style picture of a Tesco soup can, in New York's Museum of Modern Art. It remained there undetected for three days before the museum took it down. On the same day, Banksy also hung his own work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum. Banksy later explained, "I thought some of [the paintings] were quite good. That's why I thought, you know, put them in a gallery." [Wooster Collective]
In December 2005, the German magazine Bild reported that Dr. Kajta Schneider, director of the State Art Museum of Moritzburg, when asked to identify the artist responsible for a painting, responded that it looked like the work of Guggenheim-Prize winner Ernst Wilhelm Nay, who is famous for using blotches of color. In reality, the canvas was the work of Bangi, a 31-year-old female chimpanzee from the Halle zoo. When her error was revealed to her, Dr. Schneider said, "I did think it looked a bit rushed." Banghi reportedly enjoyed painting, although her mate Satscho had a habit of destroying most of her works.
The artwork of Freddie WR Linsky attracted interest when it was posted on Charles Saatchi's online gallery. A Berlin gallery even invited Linsky to showcase his talents in an upcoming exhibition. What the critics didn't know was that Linsky was only 2 years old. Many of his pieces included ketchup, sprayed while sitting in his high chair. The works had been posted online by his mother, Estelle Lovatt, a lecturer at Hampstead School of Art, who explained that Freddie always got very excited by the messes he made, and she became curious whether critics "would be encouraging or dismissive if I showed his work online." [Daily Mail]
The paintings of a new abstract artist, Aelita Andre, were featured at a Melbourne exhibition, alongside works by established photographers Nikka Kalashnikova and Julia Palenov. The art critic for The Age noted that Andre's works were "credible abstractions, maybe playing on Asian screens with their reds... heavily reliant on figure/ground relations." But Andre (who was Kalashnikova's daughter) was only 22-months old. The museum had not been aware of this when it agreed to exhibit her work. Nor had The Age's critic known this when he reviewed it. Aelita's mother said she simply wanted her daughter's work to be judged on its merits. [TheVine]