Some of Art History’s most curious and amusing anecdotes
by Constanza Ontiveros Valdés
While for centuries Art History has been viewed as a deadly serious discipline, every once in a while some of its main characters have proved they are just like the rest of us through their unusual or frankly eccentric methods. In this post, we explore some of Art History’s most curious and amusing anecdotes from Antiquity to contemporary times.
Zeuxis and Parrhasius: a fierce competition of realist painting that influenced Renaissance artists
Roman author Pliny the Elder narrated one of the most famous painting competitions of all time. The participants were two gifted artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. First, Zeuxis painted grapes that were so realistic that when birds saw the image tried to eat them. Shortly after, Zeuxis went to view his adversary’s painting but it was covered with a curtain so he asked the curtain to be lifted. To Zeuxis’s surprise, the curtain was painted. Parrhasius had defeated him! Over the centuries, this story was remade by other authors. As proof of this, Vasari, the writer of the lives of Renaissance masters, shared that when Giotto was a young man studying with Cimabue, he painted a fly atop one of his instructor’s designs. The fly appeared to be so real that Cimabue attempted to scare it away with his hands. The message was clear: Giotto had surpassed his teacher! By depicting a humble fly, Giotto paved the way for the emergence of the Renaissance.
Da Vinci: genius humanist and prankster
Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most celebrated artists in Art History. However, he was also a prankster. Some of his jokes were detailed by Vasari who, like the rest of us, loved good gossip. For instance, Vasari recounted Da Vinci once traveled to the Vatican for the election of Leo X as pope. During his stay in Rome, where he developed architecture and hydraulic projects, he also found time to play practical jokes. He once created a living “dragon” by adding glimmering wings to a live lizard. He then domesticated the creature and kept it in a box he opened in front of his friends, frightening the life out of them. Da Vinci also pulled another trick on the Vatican’s grounds. He made makeshift balloons from dead bullock’s intestines which could be inflated with blacksmith’s bellows. The artist invited curious and naïve people to see his experiment and then trapped them in the room by inflating the intestines to huge sizes!
Klimt: using cat urine as a drawing fixative
Aside from being the face of the Vienna Secession Movement and a Symbolist painter, Austrian artist Gustav Klimt was obsessed with cats. His studio was filled with these furry animals who were left free to wander about. It is said the artist let cats destroy his paper works or pee on top of them. Some say he also intentionally covered the pages of a few of his now invaluable sketchbooks with cat urine as he believed it was the best fixative available. Of course, time proved the artist wrong as these works did not last. Arthur Roessler, an art critic, recounts the cats’ activity in the artist’s studio and his laid-back response. “Once, as I sat with Klimt…, surrounded by… cats, fighting with each other, so much so that the rustling study sheets just went flying, I asked him, puzzled, why he tolerated such antics spoiling hundreds of … drawings. With a smile, Klimt replied: ‘No, my friend, even if they crumple one of the other pieces of paper, it doesn’t matter; they only pee on the others, and, you know, it makes the best fixing agent!’”
Yves Klein: an artist that could fly
In 1960, Parisians read astonishing news in a four-page newspaper placed on their doors next to the weekly Journal Du Dimanche. Its front page featured a black and white picture of a man who appears to be floating in the air as he jumps from the roof of a two-story house to the sidewalk below. The headline was: “The painter of space leaps into the void!” The whole thing was staged by Yves Klein, an avant-garde artist best known for his monochromatic paintings, and the picture featured is his famous photograph, Leap into the Void (1960). At the time, the photograph was taken by many as the real deal. Klein refused to ever accept it was an illusion and he threatened the other photographers with a lawsuit if they revealed the image was staged. It is said the artist did not fear death as he practiced his jump many times by himself testing the arc of his body and introducing different elements in the scene. The mysteries of this photograph weren’t disclosed until 2010 when two exhibitions analyzed the process behind its making.
Rock, paper, scissors: how a Japanese magnate decided who to give his art collection in consignment
In 2005, Maspro Denkoh Corporation, a Japanese electronics company, needed to choose between Sotheby’s or Christie’s for the auctioning of some of the works from its art collection. As Takashi Hashiyama, the company President, could not make up his mind, he decided to let a Rock, paper, scissors game define where the artworks would land for consignment. “It probably looks strange to others,” … “But I believe this is the best way to decide between two things which are equally good,” Hashiyama said at the time. A representative from each auction house was summoned to the company’s headquarters in Tokyo and was asked to write his object of choice on a piece of paper. Christie’s representative chose scissors, while his competitor selected paper. And just like that, Christie’s won a $20 million worth consignment of artworks ranging from Cézanne to Picasso!
The naming of a museum bathroom after a millionaire benefactor
In 2021, writer and filmmaker John Waters proudly unveiled his eponymous gender-neutral bathrooms at the Baltimore Museum of Art, in Maryland. It all started when the personality, known by his moniker the Pope of Trash for his skill in merging high and low culture, joined the museum’s board and decided to donate 372 works from his private collection to the institution. The donation included photographs and works on paper by artists like Nan Goldin, Lee Lozano, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol. When Waters announced this gift, he requested the bathrooms to be renamed after him. The trustees at first thought he was fooling around as usually museum wings or auditoriums are named after donors often drawing a backlash. However, Waters was serious. “Public restrooms make all people nervous,” he said at the unveiling, adding, “They’re unpredictable. They’re also fueled by accidents, just like my favorite contemporary art.” While playful, Water’s intention was also to acknowledge trans rights.