Provocateurs, instigators, illusionists, they all move between the boundaries of what’s right and wrong, not to teach the audience a lesson about the perils of naiveness, but to explore all the possible interpretations of reality. Some of them have gained artistic recognition through performances or by adopting an alter ego. Sometimes, just by wearing a wig, embracing a new name, or making small changes in their personality, they can portray certain aspects of their work, blocked before due to restraining beliefs. On the other hand, there are those who profit themselves thanks to trickery, consciously manipulating the truth in order to achieve wealth or to satisfy their ego. Regardless of what type of illusion they fabricated, these artists managed to puzzle the world one way or another. Welcome to the art of trickery.
The Cottingley Fairies
During an interview in 1983, cousins Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths, admitted that, 65 years before, they had carried out a majestic hoax. The story began when Elise took her father’s camera one sunny afternoon in 1917, in order to photograph Frances in a small creek nearby. When Elise’s father developed the film, he was surprised to see some bizarre white shapes upon the images. First he thought it were birds, then sandwich wrappers, until Elise told him they were fairies. Both, him and his wife, decided to inspect Elise’s room, looking for some evidence that would disproof the images. Eventually they didn’t find anything, and both girls stuck to their story for many years after that; they had seen fairies and decided to capture them on film.
The story rolled like a snow ball when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes and a firm believer in the occult, publicly declared that the images were real, but the true mystery that remains is how two girls of fifteen and nine years old managed to fool the mind behind the greatest detective in literature’s history. Come on, they didn’t even had Photoshop!
…Lynn Hershman Lesson, but my friends call me Roberta Breitmore
If you were in San Francisco during the first half of the seventies, it’s plausible you could have crossed paths with Roberta Breitmore: a young woman with socializing disabilities and way too much make-up. Her blond wig would bounce awkwardly along the streets while her eyes remained hidden behind big shades as her gaze fixated on the ground. Baltimore became a legend in San Francisco before long.
There was just one small problem: Roberta Beritmore was Lynn Hershamn Lesson’s alter ego. Lesson, an artists born in Ohio, wanted to take the act of performance one step further. Her project consisted, not only in carrying out an auto-transformation through great deals of make-up, clothes and wigs, but to develop a well-constructed personality that managed to last for four years and whose existence could be corroborated physically. Breitmore arrived to San Francisco on a bus and lodged at the Dante Hotel. The following years she would open a bank account, get credit cards, rent a room in a shared apartment, visit a psychiatrist and participate in a weight-loss program. Roberta had a characteristic fashion sense, besides a particular way of talking, walking, gesticulating and writing. Her activities were documented by Lesson through 144 drawings and photographs. This charade went down in history as an avant-garde galvanizing project in the field of feminism and performance.
Theaster Gates and the poignent story of Yamaguchi, the potter
In the year 2007, Theaster Gates, an artists from Chicago, organized an exhibition called «Plate Convergence», where he presented the ceramics of Shoji Yamaguchi, a Japanese pottery master that, after World War II, relocated in Mississippi, married a black civil rights advocate and developed a community around his art. Yamaguchi and his wife died in a car accident, but the son of the couple funded the Yamaguchi Institute, in order to continue with his father’s legacy.
During the opening night, Gates hosted a private dinner, serving “real Japanese food”. Gates, who had studied pottery in Japan for many years, explained to all the attendants, how he had met Yamaguchi during a trip to the South, and how, that Japanese master, had turned into his mentor until his death, in 1991. Collectors, critics and art lovers, seduced by the late artist and fascinated with their host, praised all the pieces and the craftsman that had created them. Towards the end of the evening, Gates unveiled that Shoji Yamaguchi was a fictional character and that his “son” was a hired actor; all the pieces had been made by him and the scam was all part of a bigger plan. The attendants, far from feeling deceived, were amazed and impressed by the hoax. Gates’ plan behind the whole charade was to reflect upon the existing racial barriers that condition the art industry, and he believed that the best way to display this was by creating a fictional Japanese artist that could be embraced by the white public more easily than an African-American, like himself. “White people love the Japanese”, he said, “they love everything that’s Asian”. On top of that, he has affirmed that this false identity has liberated him in order to create better pieces.
Pierre Brassau, French, avant-garde “artist”
In February 1964, four paintings of an unknown French avant-garde artist, named Pierre Brassau, were displayed at an art gallery in Göteborg, Sweden. The exhibition also included the works of other artists hailing from England, Austria, Italy, Denmark and Sweden, but none managed to receive the attention as those made by Brassau. It’s important to clarify that throughout these years, not long after World War II, the art industry was obsessed with the abstract movement, and painters such as Pollock and Kandinsky were praised relentlessly.
All attendants to the exhibition admired Brassau’s artworks; a journalist would later write, “Pierre Brassau paints with powerful brush strokes, but at the same time with a clear determination. His works breath a furious impetus… Pierre is an artist that works with the delicacy of a ballet dancer”. Only one of the critics present at the exhibition ventured to go against the generalized opinion, asserting that, “only an ape could have done this”. As it turned out, he was right: Pierre Brassau was, nonetheless, a chimpanzee. Peter the chimpanzee was four years old and lived at the Boras Zoo in Sweden (Pierre was his French moniker). Behind this «experiment» was the mind of a Swede journalist called Ake Axelsson, who was tired of how people all around the globe were losing their minds chasing paintings made up of random stains strewn across a piece of canvas, so he decided to test the critics by challenging their knowledge on the subject. Apparently, he won.
Jason Musson, a.k.a. Hennessy Youngman
The Youtube channel of Hennessy Youngman, ART THROUGHZ, has more than one million hits. On its 26 videos, uploaded between the years 2010 and 2012, Youngman, dressed up with beanies and gold chains, carries on a well-developed critique to the art industry. One of his top videos focuses on Damien Hirst’s work: “Damien Hirst is going to be exhibiting his spot paintings at all the Gagosian galleries worldwide, simultaneously, like some perfect storm of banality”; he also has a tutorial video in which he strives to help people understand the concept of relative aesthetics in the arts.
The dissonance between Youngman’s rapper-esque character, apparently unrelated to the art industry, and his intellectual explanations, has a reason to be: Youngman is the product of artist Jayson Musson‘s creativity, who portrays a fake personality as part of his body of work, with the objective of raising questions about the existing art hierarchies and the exclusion of minorities within the scene. Youngman surfaced during Musson’s first months doing his artistic Masters degree, and developed as a cultural critic interested in discussing topics such as talent, race, gender and pop culture, everything with a humorist swerve. As a matter of fact, the name comes from the American comedian Henry “Heny” Youngman, and the Hennessy cognac, a very popular beverage amongst rappers.
Larry Bell, Biluxo Benoni and Dr. Lux
Anyone who witnessed the artistic expansion that took place in Los Angeles throughout the sixties, probably remembers Larry Bell’s alter ego: en extravagant and appealing man (wearing a fake mustache) that went by the name of Biluxo Benoni.
Benoni -also known as Dr. Lux due to his flamboyant character and overwhelming expenditures, even when he didn’t have a dime-, wouldn’t miss an opening night and was well-known in every art gallery around California. At his -Bell’s- own exhibitions, Benoni would empower the artist to interact with the assistants through a deeper level of intimacy, establishing a greater distance between the artist and his creations, taking the part of another critic. Eventually, as he felt more comfortable within his skin, and success came along, Bell abandoned Biluxo Benoni and Dr. Lux, in order to embrace his true self. “I hid in many places thanks to Dr. Lux”, Bell explained once. “Then, in a determined moment, I decided to stop dressing up, and just be myself”.
Beltracchi, the best forger in the world
Wolfgang Beltracchi was the protagonist of what has been, probably, the biggest scandal regarding art forgery in the last century. This artists managed to dupe collectors and specialists throughout decades, making millions along the way. What makes this story interesting is that Beltracchi didn’t copy the works of the masters; he would appropriate their style in such a marvelous manner, creating new pieces, that everyone believed they were original. Copying a certain style is not a crime by itself, but what got this man into trouble, was that he used to sign them and sell them as if they were original paintings by Picasso, Matisse or Ernst.
Belracchi, his wife Helene, and his associate, Otto S.K., we tried in the year 2011 and found guilty of having sold 14 “fake” paintings for a grand total of 45 million dollars. On top of that, the prolific forger has claimed numerous times that he managed to create hundreds of fraudulent pieces, of around 50 artists, that currently are on prestigious museums, art galleries, and private collections, gulling and leaving in ridicule many experts on the subject, including art restorers and curators. This fascinating story was depicted in the documentary «Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery», by Arne Birkenstock.
Margaret Keane and her Big Eyes
We have mentioned before the story about the famous Big Eyes created by Margaret Keane, those characteristic kitsch paintings of little kids with enormous eyes, and which Tim Burton decided to portray in film. Today, Margaret Keane is a world-known artists, but for over a decade, her husband, Walter Keane, stole all of her success, claiming the pieces were his, selling them under his signature. He even dare to say that, “no one can paint eyes like Walter Keane”, when in reality, Walter never learned to hold a brush.
The lie, which went along a petty psychological control from Walter over his wife, came to an end when Margaret decided to get a divorce and sue her former husband. During the infamous trial, the judge ordered both parties to create a Big Eye painting before the jury; Walter desisted claiming he had an injured shoulder, while Margaret finished hers in 53 minutes, convincing everyone that she was the real author of the pieces, three weeks after the legal proceedings started. At the end, Margaret stood up for herself and claimed her legacy, which had be wrongfully stolen.
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