From changing their birthdays to swindling Yoko Ono out of 10k, we look at the artists who have taken creative liberties.

By Balthazar Malevolent


The artist Joseph Beuys got involved in a plane crash in 1944. He was flying over the Russian front in a German bomber when the crash took place, killing the pilot and leaving Beuys badly wounded. The artist remembered being rescued by nomadic Tartars who wrapped him in felt and fat to restore him back to health before he was found by German search commando. "I would not be alive today without the Tartars," he later said.

Salvador Dali.

It's a dramatic story, but also a fabrication in part: when the plane crash took place, it was found that the part about the Tatars rescuing Beuys was untrue (records state that Tartars were not in the village at the time). The lie - eulogized as the great myth of Beuys - would describe the origins of his artistic materials and remain an enduring part of his legacy.

Beuys would hardly have considered himself to be deceiving the public: instead, he found that there was more truth contained within myths than daily reality. He saw art as a mystical, transformative force, with the ability to heal the wounds of society, just as the Tartars allegedly did to him.

The Beuysian Myth encourages us to look beyond face value, as artists tend to blur the line between art and reality throughout history to the present. Let's take a look at some of the most convincing self-created myths to have invaded the art world from Frida Kahlo to Salvador Dalì, Damien Hirst, and David Bowie, in honor of Beuys.


Spirituality and symbolism always took precedence over fact for Frida Kahlo - particularly in the case of her birth certificate. Kahlo shaved off her age for three years, saying that 1910 was the year she was born, rather than 1907. Hardly an act of vanity, Kahlo decided to more closely align herself with her Mexican roots and the Socialist cause.

Her acquired birth year coincided with the start of the Mexican revolution and President Porfirio Dia's overthrow – a moment heralded as the birth of modern Mexico. Kahlo's adopted birth date couldn't feel more fitting for a woman whose name is now associated with progressive, liberal ideals.


Marina Abramović approached the avant-garde theater and opera director Robert Wilson to ask if he would be interested in staging her funeral, where death was a subject of her work for a long time. He agreed, as he got to stage her life, too. The outcome was a three-hour movie, called "Marina Abramović's Life and Death," which premiered at the 2011 Manchester International Festival, starring Abramović as both herself and her abusive mother, and Willem Dafoe as the narrator.

"Marina told me plenty of stories about her parents and family circumstances, the loves and sorrows in her life. I built them into a visual poem about her life," explained Robert Wilson about the performance. Abramović relinquished control, as she did with previous biographers, so that Wilson was free to view her life: "We still mix things according to our own taste but my life looked different to me every time," she said.

The performance not only helped the audience to try to discern between fact and fiction, it also allowed Abramović to learn the truths about herself. Through this case, myth-making becomes a passive act, recalling one of her most famous performance pieces, "Rhythm 0," which saw the artist placing her life and body entirely into the hands of strangers, transforming herself into an instrument to be used as one wishes.


Hirst unveiled his "Treasures from the Ruin of the Unbelievable" at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which told the story of a huge ancient wreck of a ship. The contents of the precious cargo of the ship were on display: the collection of Aulus Calidius Amotan - a freed slave best known as Cif Amotan II (an anagram for "I am fiction") - destined for a temple dedicated to the sun.

An accompanying mockumentary released on Netflix claimed the Venice spectacle was a debut long-lost treasure presentation uncovered by a team of archeologists and divers off the East African coast. However, it didn't take much digging to realize that the recovered treasures were in fact a ten-year Hirst's project, the handiwork of his many studio assistants.

Some visitors at the Biennale were evidently convinced by the fake history, finally realizing that they had been duped – maybe after seeing "Made in China" imprinted on one of the statues. Hirst's spectacle, though a divisive work, successfully used storytelling and satire to mediate on the role of belief in a post-truth world.


Before his death, Piero Manzoni said he hoped his work would "expose the art-buying public's gullibility." Perhaps he mentioned his "Merda d'artista": an artwork from 1961, consisting of 90 tins filled with the feces of the artist himself. "If collectors want something private, very personal to the artist, there is the artist's own shit. That's just really his," Manzoni said. Obviously, the demand was there: Tate Modern bought one tin from Sotheby's in 2000 for £22,350 and in 2007, another went at an auction in Milan for £84,000.

The artist Agostino Bonalumi, one of Manzoni's colleagues, insisted that the tins were not packed with feces but with plaster. "Let them do so, if someone wants to check this," Bonalumi wrote. The gallery has chosen not to open the cans, perhaps to protect the value of the work, but also, according to a Tate spokesman, because "keeping the viewer in suspense is part of the subversive humor of the work." Reminiscent of the "Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp, the work artfully demonstrates that anything an artist makes can be rendered valuable, even a series of re-labeled tin cans intended to contain human excrement.


Dalí's wild performances became a signature aspect of his creative career, whether he appeared as a contestant on a game show in the 1950s, lecturing in a scuba suit, or scamming out thousands of dollars from a fellow artist. According to Amanda Lear, the muse and lover of the artist, "Dalí could never resist the temptation of a cheque," once swindling Yoko Ono out of $10,000. Ono offered the artist the money in return for a hair from his moustache, but fearing that she would use the hair for occult purposes, Dalí sent Lear looking for a blade of grass to send to her instead. "He was having fun ripping off people," Lear explained.

It is no wonder that he acquired Andre Bréton's anagrammatic nickname 'Avida Dollars' – a jibe at what Bréton saw as the commercialization of Dalí, his insatiable appetite for fame and riches, and even his grifting too. There are various tales of Dalí's chicanery, from avoiding restaurant cheques by handing over sketches instead, to requesting millions of pounds for a painting he said was made with the venom of thousands of wasps. It's doubtful that Dalí really needed the money as a wildly successful artist, but he thrived off courting attention and living his style of surrealism.


In 1998, the respected writer William Boyd published a biography of the artist Nat Tate, the unknown abstract expressionist who lived and worked in the 1950s in New York, before destroying 99% of his art and jumping from a ferry near Staten Island to his death. According to the novel, the body of the artist has never been identified – which makes sense because Nat Tate only existed in Boyd's imagination.

Notwithstanding a clue that the tale could be false contained in the artist's very name – a combination of the National Gallery and Tate Britain – Boyd somehow managed to fool the art world, with great support from his pal, David Bowie. It was Bowie who launched the book and threw a party at the studio of Jeff Koons, packed with the glitterati of the art scene of New York to celebrate its launch on April Fool's day.

Boyd remembers how, at the gathering, Bowie read passages from the novel, "completely deadpan" to the guests gathered, including his own comment in the blurb, which read: "The great tragedy of this quiet and moving monograph is that the greatest fear of the artist – that the Lord will make you only a mediocre artist – did not extend to Nat Tate in retrospect."

Guests had been completely persuaded by the eloquent testimonial, with some even claiming to have heard of the artist before the publication of the monograph. Boyd and Bowie had expected another retrospective of Tate's work off the back of the party's success: this never materialized, however, after a journalist broke the news that Nat Tate was fictional. The art world recoiled in shock, and maybe some shame in failing to acknowledge the very deliberate Boyd and Bowie's mockery of the high society's need to be 'in the know'.

Designer André Courreges used a similar strategy to cause a ruckus around his 1960s' collections. The hype used to be more elegant back in the days, wasn't it? Do you remember any other cases from the past? Share your thoughts with us!

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