Many moons ago (May 2022), back when tomato soup was but a comforting and inexpensive supper option and museums did not have to de-attach climate activists from their art historical masterpieces, there was this man who disguised himself as an elderly woman, entered the Louvre in a wheelchair, and smeared cake on the Mona Lisa. “Think of the planet,” he wailed, before museum security wheeled him away from the glass-protected paintings.
We’d like to personally thank this person for making the work of journalists around the globe infinitely more amusing. And for helping us set the tone for this list of the year’s wildest and most unimaginable art stories, some of them laugh-out-loud funny and others simply mind-boggling. Here’s to hoping 2023 brings more of them — and more cake!
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- A security guard at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg was accused of doodling on a painting during a shift. The vandalism was discovered when visitors noticed that two figures in a painting by Anna Leporskaya were suddenly gazing back at them — with a fresh set of eyes drawn in ballpoint pen.
- If you don’t understand modern art, don’t worry! Neither do the experts, apparently. A painting by Piet Mondrian was discovered to be hanging upside-down for over seven decades at a German museum. Making the story stranger is the fact that a 1997 episode of the PBS children’s cartoon Arthur seems to have predicted the blooper.
- The Orlando Museum of Art dedicated an entire exhibition to Jean-Michel Basquiat — but it turned out all the works in the show were fakes. The FBI raided the museum and the institution’s director and board chair resigned. Why, Florida, why?
- Poland’s Eastern Fort Museum had to issue a statement over the summer pleading with patrons to stop having sex on the premises after three couples were discovered engaging in sexual acts through CCTV footage. Museum director Piotr Piwowarczyk hypothesized that the many dimly lit corners and unseen aura might inspire such behavior from visitors. All’s fair in love and war?
- Forget your awkward high school sex-ed classes. A museum in Peru used its collection of ancient erotic ceramics to teach visitors how to perform self-checks for testicular and prostate cancers, allowing participants to touch the pre-Hispanic objects to practice.
- In somewhat related news, a performance artist kissed and licked pre-Hispanic objects in a Mexico City museum to protest the rampant auction of the nation’s Indigenous patrimony around the world. None of the smooched objects were damaged.
- It’s known that Ancient Romans used images of phalluses as decor and carried them around as symbols of virility, but two discoveries this year illuminated just how penis-minded they may have been. In England, ancient Roman graffiti found on Hadrian’s wall showed a drawing of a phallus accompanied by the phrase “Secundinus, the shitter” (for real), and in Spain, archaeologists discovered an “unusually large” phallus carving measuring 18 inches long.
- At an event featuring posing models, flame throwers, and a mariachi band, a Florida man burned what he said was a real Frida Kahlo drawing and announced his plan to sell the destroyed work as 10,000 NFTs. The proof went up in smoke, but the man is now under investigation by Mexico’s chief cultural authority.
- Madonna partnered with NFT artist Beeple in one of this year’s most uncalled-for collaborations. The pair created digital artworks in which Madonna births various objects and titled the works Mother of Creation, and the results are exactly as terrifying as they sound. (Writer Sarah Rose Sharp called them “a matryoshka of vagina horrors.”)
- If you think your most recent DALL-E images are bad, please meet Loab, an AI-generated demon that emerged from one user’s experiments with a series of “negative prompt weights” on the platform. The figure, described by its artist as a “devastated-looking older woman with defined triangles of rosacea(?) on her cheeks,” continued to crop up in subsequent images.
- In mid-December, the Cincinnati Art Museum discovered that beneath Paul Cézanne’s 1865 painting “Still Life with Bread and Eggs” was a completed portrait possibly dating from the artist’s early-career “dark period.” The museum’s chief curator, Serena Urry, had a hunch that the still life was painted on top of another work after noticing unusual cracks on the painting’s surface.
- Last October, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC revealed that one of the four Johannes Vermeer paintings in their collection was actually not a Vermeer afer all. Microscopic and x-ray analyses revealed that “Girl With a Flute” (c. 1669-1675) had “awkward” brushwork and an unusually coarse layer of top pigment, indicating that it was completed by “someone who understood the Dutch artist’s process and materials but was unable to completely master them.”
- Convicted American serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s blood-curdling self-portrait clown painting fetched over $12K as part of a Halloween-themed auction in Philadelphia. Gacy originally sold the painting he made while imprisoned on death row for $50 in 1985, graciously including a photo of himself dressed up as his notorious alter-ego, Pogo the Clown, who made appearances as an entertainer at children’s birthday parties in Norridge, Illinois.