5 Foolish Fibs in Art History

Left: Antique poster of a red devilish jester, likely meant to represent Il Capitano, from the Commedia dell'Arte, 1880s-90s; Right: Vintage poster of the logo of the Filver Company of France, Monsieur Filver the jester, by artist Jean D'Ylen, 1920s, Ross Art Group

As serious as the pursuit of art and expression can be, artists are also some of the best equipped to express the whimsical, ridiculous, and foolishness of the world in which we live. Whether it is a simple act of creative retribution or a full-scale ruse intended to shake up the art world itself, here are five inspired instigators who blurred the line between the foolish and the fooled, just in time for April Fools’ Day.

1. “The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo

“The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1536-41, photo via Wikimedia Commons

The fresco by Michelangelo that blankets the entire altar wall of Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel contains one of art’s most famous “Easter Eggs” – and acts of revenge. Upon the fresco’s completion, the Catholic Church criticized the Italian Renaissance painter for his blunt presentation of nudity as it flew in the face of sound Christian decorum. Biago da Cesena, acting as the Pope’s official and Papal Master of Ceremonies, famously remarked that it was “mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully.” Michelangelo painted Cesena into the fresco as Minor, judge of the underworld, cast forever to rule hell with pointed donkey ears and a snake biting his genitals. (see lower right hand corner of above photo)

2. “Bacchus” by Caravaggio

“Bacchus” by Caravaggio, c. 1596-1597, oil on canvas, photo via Wikimedia Commons

This Baroque masterpiece features the youthful god of grapes, wine and fertility, thought to be Caravaggio himself at age 25, relaxing with food and drink in a languorous state fit for a dream. But he is not so tranquil as to neglect his viewer. He offers his audience a full goblet of deep red wine, a celebratory drink distilled from the fruit his mythos champions, the voluptuous decanter at his side. Though to the naked eye, the decanter looks like a simple glass carafe, it contains an invisible self-portrait in miniature of Caravaggio that remained undiscovered until infrared technology revealed it in its entirety 400 years after it was painted. Restorers first noticed it in 1922, but it was not until 2009 that reflectography uncovered the miniscule portrait of the painter in situ, working away at an easel and holding his paintbrush. It’s possible to make out his eyes, nose, and collar just above the wine meniscus.

3. Disumbrationism by Paul Jordan-Smith

“Aspiration” by Pavel Jerdanowitch (Paul Jordan-Smith), created as a practical joke as part of his fake school of art, “Disumbrationism.” Video screen capture via The Travel Channel

Launched in 1924 in retaliation for the poor reception of his wife’s art by an exhibition jury, writer Paul Jordan-Smith created the new school of art, called “Disumbrationism,” as a spoof under the alias Pavel Jerdanowitch. He explained in his autobiography The Road I Came that “day after day I went to see and to hear contradictory explanations of what was called modern art, and finally I became disgusted, for most of the young critics were saying in effect,” and having never picked up a paintbrush before, he painted the crude painting, “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

Jordan-Smith entered this painting into New York’s 1925 Exhibition of the Independents under the title “Exaltation,” and after some interest from the French art journal Revue du Vrai et du Beau (Review of the True and the Beautiful), rounded out the ruse with a fictional account of his life as the painter Pavel Jerdanowitch, a Chicago native of Russian extraction. After three years of creating stylized pieces like “Exaltation,” being featured in corresponding exhibitions, and receiving art world praise, Jordan-Smith confessed to the con in 1927 to the Los Angeles Times, bringing Disumbrationism to its end.

4. Blue Conceptualism by Ryan Gander

“Magnus Opus” by Ryan Gander, 2013. Photo courtesy of the artist @ryanjgander via Instagram

The Blue Conceptualism movement, the melancholic clique of artists and devotees of missed opportunities, rose to fame in the 1970s – or at least that is what creator Ryan Gander wanted visitors to believe. The fact was that the movement – its associated artists, their histories, and their rise and decline – never existed in the first place. Staged in a London warehouse in 2011, Gander called the fake movement his “Locked Room Scenario,” wherein patrons may have expected a full scale retrospective of Blue Conceptualism, but what they received was walled off entrances, roped off rooms, and brief glances of “seminal” works. Gallery goers hoping for a curated and accessible exhibit were met with a mishmash of photographed works in blue fur and neon sculpture, disheveled boxes of marketing pamphlets, and scrawled handwritten notes as if the event, and the soul of the movement, had been grossly unprepared.

5. Nat Tate by William Boyd

Photo courtesy @jeandedaumier via Instagram

On April Fools’ Day in 1998, David Bowie hosted a dazzling affair to celebrate the launch of his brand new publishing house, “21.” Hosted at artist Jeff Koons’ Manhattan studio, the soirée celebrated a new biography written by William Boyd. Boyd’s book told the story of the late Nathwell Tate, an abstract expressionist born in the mid-1920s. According to the biography, Tate leapt to his death from the Staten Island ferry, but not before destroying 99 percent of his work. Bowie read excerpts at the party, entertaining the listeners with details of Tate’s friendships with art heavyweights Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso and the artist’s tragic life trajectory. Boyd, Bowie, and a handful of other literary accomplices at “21” knew the truth: Nat Tate, his namesake derived from the National and Tate Galleries respectively, was a hoax on what The Independent of London called “some of the biggest names in the art world.” Though feathers and feelings were ruffled, all was not for naught, as Boyd donated auction winnings for his paintings as Nat Tate to an art charity.

Happy April Fools’ Day from the Invaluable editors!