The 8 Greatest Pranks in Art History

The 8 Greatest Pranks in Art History

From Zeuxis and the birds to Velázquez with his portrait of his assistant Juan de Pareja, which he sprang on de Pareja's friends to see if they would be fooled by its extreme realism, artists have been playing practical jokes throughout the ages — often on one another. In honor of April Fool's Day, ARTINFO has gathered together a few of the funnier — and lesser-known — pranks, at least one of which changed actually the course of art history. 


Recent research by Tim Airgeeten, an art historian from the University of Toronto, suggests that Belgian surrealist René Magritte's iconic painting, "The Treachery of Images," may be an encoded condemnation of his least favorite cigar company. The painting, fashioned in the style of a tobacco store advertisement, pictures a brown pipe floating above the phrase "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe"). The work is traditionally interpreted as a commentary on the imitative nature of art — the wooden pipe in the painting is, of course, a representation of a pipe rather than the physical pipe itself. But a document recently unearthed by Airgeeten suggests that the image might have held additional, more personal significance for the artist, an avid pipe-smoker. The scholar uncovered a letter Magritte wrote in 1927 — a year before he began working on "The Treachery of Images"— to the president of Alterdis, a French tobacco company. In it, the artist complains about the company's "lousy excuse for a pipe, which burns out in short order and hardly conducts any smoke at all." Upon further investigation, Airgeeten discovered that Alterdis's advertisements from 1927 contain a tan background and graphic pipe design strikingly similar to those in "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." Magritte's painting, then, may be a philosophical statement about the nature of painting (and language, as Structuralists believe) — but it could also be an unhappy customer's way of getting back at Altertis for a disappointing product, and a joke at the company's expense.


From the early '60s to his death in 1987, Andy Warhol produced his "Time Capsules," collecting the contents of his desk into cardboard boxes and sealing them for posterity each day. On April 1, 1978, Andy instead swept the contents of the desk of Frank Castoria, the owner of a nearby shoe repair business, into a box. This classic prank was not revealed until the Andy Warhol Museum opened the time capsule, some 30 years later, to find the box filled with a meaningless assortment of pipe cleaners, receipts, and birthday cards.


In 2010, following his successful New Museum show, Urs Fischer was contacted by his New York dealer Gavin Brown, who said that a U.S. collector was desperate for a small work by the artist for his home. Fischer had nothing finished that would suit the rather small dimensions that the collector specified, so Brown suggested that the artist create a new work using his signature medium of rotting food. Fischer offered a single stick of butter on a saucer, titling the piece "Maria Schneider," and stating that the slow melting of the butter would be an ironic commentary on the presumed permanence of the art object, as well as a tongue-and-cheek reference to Dalí's melting clocks. The joke was on Brown, however, as Fischer actually made the work out of a shelf-stable margarine, so that it did not melt. By the time the hoax was uncovered, Brown had sold "Maria Schneider" for $17,000.


In the winter of 1914, Kazimir Malevich was feeling disheartened because he felt that his attempts to wrestle with Cubism, the dominant intellectual force then in the avant garde, were insufficient in advancing a personal artistic vision. His "Woman at the Poster Column," a composition from earlier in the year that contained collaged painted rectangles over a figure, had been well received in Moscow, but Malevich considered it a failure, and gloomily defaced other works in the series. Then, one afternoon, when he was at the pinnacle of his despair, Vladimir Tatlin, the most respected thinker in the city's artistic circles, paid a surprise visit to his home and studio, together with Aleksandr Rodchenko, Malevich's bitter rival. Talk quickly turned to work, with Rodchenko boasting about his successes in adapting the strategies of Italian Futurism, all to impress Tatlin. He then asked Malevich, with barely hidden contempt, "And what have you been covering with rectangles lately, Kazimir?"

Furious, and determined not to confess his impasse in front of Tatlin, Malevich seized one of the failed collaged works that he had eradicated with coats of black paint and declared, "Futurism is already in the past — this is what art is now!" Tatlin, who liked Malevich — he would later ask him to teach at his INKhUK school Petrograd — chimed in, "It's a work of pure feeling! A masterpiece!" Rodchenko objected, "But there's nothing there." Barely able to keep a straight face, Malevich said nothing, and Rodchenko left in confusion. Once he was safely gone, Tatlin told Malevich that it was a very funny joke but added "there's something to it," and encouraged him to actually experiment with pure geometry. To further mock Rodchenko, the two men named the movement "Suprematism." Six years later, Rodchenko, giving in, displayed his own series of monochromatic paintings in the "5x5=25" exhibition, saying that it marked "the end of painting." 


From Vasari's "The Lives of the Artists":

It is clear that Leonardo, though still in his boyhood, yet demonstrated many caprices and defiance of authorities. And this was true even of his master Andrea del Verrocchio. Early after coming to work with the elder artist, as the master was passing many long hours painting his St. John baptizing Christ, Leonardo conspired to craft a device for his entertainment. Securing a goat bladder from a peasant, Leonardo filled it with air by his own breath, and placed the bladder where he knew the weary Andrea would set himself. And when he sat, the bladder issued a sound that resembled the rude wailing of flatulence. This incident moved Andrea first to anger, but then to laughter, for the invention was so subtle and marvelous that none could deny the wit of Leonardo.


Art historians have long been puzzled by the disappearance of "Still Life With Lobster," a painting that, according to allusions in his letters and notebooks, Eugene Delacroix painted in or around 1845. It was only recently, when a batch of correspondence was unearthed from a dusty archive in the Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale, that the full story of the missing painting came to light. At the time he created the picture, Delacroix was a member of the Paris-based Club des Hashischins, a small group of writers and artists, that, in accordance with its name, was devoted to experimentation with drugs, particularly hashish. Members of the group included the writers Theophile Gautier and Alexandre Dumas, as well as the poet Gerard de Nerval, who happened to have a pet lobster named Thibault that he had rescued from a net while on holiday in La Rochelle and that, to the consternation of some Parisians, he was given to taking on walks around the Palais Royal gardens at the end of a blue satin ribbon.

During one especially bleary meeting of the Club, Delacroix, in a fit of hash-fueled mischievousness, snatched Thibault from where the lobster was hiding (as was its wont at social gatherings) under a chaise longue, and absconded with the crustacean in full view of de Nerval, who immediately flew into pursuit. According to the recently rediscovered correspondence, however, the poet tripped over a coffee table and was temporarily incapacitated, allowing Delacroix to dash to his nearby studio with Thibault under his arm. Two hours later the painter returned, wearing a soiled bib, licking his fingers and brandishing a canvas on which he had painted a freshly boiled lobster garnished with sprigs of parsley and flanked by oysters and lemons, as was the style for still lifes in those days. De Nerval, who lay, nursing a sprained ankle, atop the chaise longue under which his cherished Thibault had so recently cowered, promptly fainted. As soon as he revived, he came at Delacroix with fists swinging, grabbed a letter opener off a nearby desk, and slashed the painting to bits. It was then that Delacroix opened the suitcase he'd held in his other hand to reveal a terror-stricken Thibault, which skittered across the room to its owner. "C'etait vraiment une reunion joyeuse!" declares the just-uncovered papers.

A shred of the painting, depicting the tips of Thibault's long antennae, is said to be in the collection of the Louvre, though curators there have been unable to locate it.


Among the greatest art pranks of the 20th century was the once infamous but now forgotten incident of Jackson Pollock's "Woman" painting. In the early fifties, spurred on by their respective critical champions, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, Pollock and Willem de Kooning became embroiled in a legendary, acrimonious rivalry. There were drunken insults at the Cedar Tavern and near fights on the beach in East Hampton. The enmity reached its apex in 1952, shortly after de Kooning began showing his seminal "Woman" paintings. At the time, Pollock was the reigning Abstract Expressionist (or action painter, depending on whose camp you were in), but the "Woman" series catapulted de Kooning to the forefront of avant-garde art. Although not remembered for his sense of humor, Pollock set out to puncture the Dutchman's ego.

Visitors to a fall group show at the Sydney Janis Gallery were surprised to find included a remarkable painting called "Woman V (My Mama)." The work was attributed to de Kooning — but which had been in fact been cooked up by a drunk Pollock the night before. The canvas depicted, in de Kooning's typically brutal style, a gap-toothed hag with long, pendulous breasts, strawlike hair, a black eye, and a hideous deformity of the genitals. Word got around town that de Kooning had finally gone too far. Eventually, of course, the august artist made his way to the gallery — during a cocktail party, where, it so happened, Pollock was also in attendance. The diminutive Dutchman stalked over to his bald colleague and jabbed a finger toward the painting.

A partial transcript of the ensuing exchange survives:

"This, this excrement is not my mama," de Kooning thundered at Pollock in his heavy accent. "I know, it's yo mama."

"What did you say about my mama, partner?" Pollock muttered.

"She is hideous, yo mama."

"Yo mama. That ain't my painting. It ain't American type."

De Kooning, red with rage, sweating up at the balding man: "That turd is yo mama."

"Don't be talkin shit about my mama, Bill, or I'll knock that cap off you."

Witnesses described de Kooning attempting to kick Pollock in the shins, and being subsequently shoved by Pollock so that he fell into a coatroom. It has been theorized that this incident led de Kooning to begin an affair with Ruth Kligman, Pollock's paramour until his death.


When James Turrell invites you to visit Roden Crater, you don't ask him how long you'll be staying, or what you should pack, or if you should bring flowers or maybe a wine — and if it's a wine, if it should be white or red, dry or fruity. You just grab your cowboy boots and your love of the sublime and go. In 1982, when collector Count Giuseppe di Panza di Biumo asked a youngish Diane Keaton (whom he had met when she and Warren Beatty crashed their car near his villa outside of Milan) to go with him and Turrell to the volcano/celestial observatory, she smiled her sheepish smile, threw on a felt hat, and hopped into the back seat of Turrell's prop plane. Out they headed to the vulcan crater in question, near Flagstaff, Arizona. And right when it appeared below them, as a kind of lunar vision, Turrell and the Count started rhythmically to chant a kind of voodoo song (with what resembled a few Rolling Stones melodies thrown in for good measure). "You've got to be kidding me," the actress reportedly said. "What the hell is going on?"

"This is the pagan rite that will finally bring in the funding we need to finish the site where the sun god and the moon god will mate and make the world bright once again!" said the bearded Turrell as his little plane wobbled to the ground. "No more money from me, you know," said the Count. "Money from the primordial forces," responded Turrell. "Oh my god," Keaton moaned as the plane ground to a halt, and the artist and his patron dragged her down the dirt runway. She was tossed into a stone-floored chamber and told to take off her high-waisted slacks and dress all in white robes and anoint her limbs with rose water. "Come on guys," she said. "Warren Beatty never makes me anoint my limbs with rose water!" It was then, Keaton afterward told reporters, that hooded figures appeared in the door and carried her out to a plinth directly below the glowing moon's beams. She was deposited on the icy marble and began to cry out in earnest. "Let the sacrifice begin," Count Giuseppe cackled. That's when the lights came on and revealed the hooded figures to be Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, who were eating pigs in blankets. "Joke's on you, Keaton," said Turrell, as he grabbed a beer. Just another Tuesday night at Roden Crater.