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Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalívia Wikipedia

The best lies artists have ever told

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

In 1944, the artist Joseph Beuys was involved in a plane crash. He was flying in a German bomber over the Russian front when the accident occurred, killing the pilot, and leaving Beuys severely injured. Before he was found by German search commando, the artist recalled being rescued by nomadic Tartars, who wrapped him in felt and fat to regenerate him back to health. “Without the Tartars”, he later claimed, “I would not be alive today.”

It’s a sensational story, but also partly a fabrication: while the plane crash did take place, the part about the Tatars rescuing Beuys was found to be untrue (records state there were no Tartars in the village at that time). The lie – eulogised as the great Beuysin myth – would define the source of his artistic materials and remain an enduring aspect of his legacy. 

Beuys would hardly have seen himself as deceiving the public: rather, he found there to be more truth contained within myths than everyday reality. He saw art as a magical, transformative force, with the power to heal society’s wounds, just as the Tartars had supposedly done for him. 

A unique set of Beuy’s sculptures are due to go on display at the Bastian this month (September 20 – November 16) which illuminate how the artist used mythical references to understand an old spiritual world and its role in modern life. The Beuysian Myth reminds us to look beyond face value, as artists throughout history to the present continue to blur the line between art and reality. From Frida Kahlo to Salvador Dalì, Damien Hirst, and David Bowie, in honour of Beuys, we take a look at some of the most compelling self-created myths to have infiltrated the art world.


For Frida Kahlo, spirituality and symbolism often took precedence over fact – particularly in the case of her birth certificate. Kahlo shaved three years off her age, claiming 1910 to be the year she was born instead of 1907. Hardly an act of vanity, Kahlo wanted to align herself more closely to her Mexican heritage and the Socialist cause. 

Her acquired birth year coincided with the outbreak of the Mexican revolution, and the overthrow of President Porfirio Dia – a moment heralded as the birth of modern Mexico. For a woman whose image is now synonymous with progressive, radical values, Kahlo’s adopted date of birth couldn’t feel more appropriate.


Marina Abramović approached the avant-garde theatre and opera director Robert Wilson to ask if he’d be interested in staging her funeral, death long being a focus of her work. He agreed, so long as he got to stage her life, too. The result was a three-hour epic, titled “The Life and Death of Marina Abramović” which first premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2011, starring Abramović both as herself, and as her abusive mother, and Willem Dafoe as the narrator.

“Marina told me a lot of stories about her parents and family situations, the loves in her life and the sorrows. I constructed them into a visual poem about her life”, Robert Wilson explained of the performance. As she’s done with previous biographers, Abramović relinquished control so that Wilson was free to interpret her life: “they are always mixing things according to their own taste... but every time my life looked different to me” she has said

Not only did the performance encourage the audience to try and distinguish between fact and fiction, but it also allowed Abramović to learn truths about herself. In this instance, myth-making becomes a passive act, recalling one of her most famous performance pieces, “Rhythm 0”, which saw the artist put her life and body completely in the hands of strangers, turning herself into an object to be used as one wished.


At the 2017 Venice Biennale, Hirst presented his “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, which told the story of an ancient wreck of a vast ship. On display were the contents of the ship’s precious cargo: the collection of Aulus Calidius Amotan – a freed slave better known as Cif Amotan II (an anagram for “I am fiction”) – which was destined for a temple dedicated to the sun. 

An accompanying mockumentary released on Netflix claimed that the Venice spectacle was a debut presentation of long-lost treasure discovered by a team of archaeologists and divers off the coast of east Africa. It didn’t take a lot of digging, however, to realise that the recovered treasures were actually a ten-year project of Hirst’s, the handiwork of his many studio assistants. 

At the Biennale, some visitors were clearly persuaded by the fake antiquity, eventually realising they’d been duped – perhaps after spotting “Made in China” imprinted across one of the statues. Though a divisive work, Hirst’s spectacle effectively employed storytelling and humour to mediate on the function of belief in a post-truth world. 


Before his death, Piero Manzoni said that he hoped his work would “expose the gullibility of the art-buying public”. He was perhaps referencing his “Merda d'artista”: a 1961 artwork consisting of 90 tins filled with the artist’s own faeces. “If collectors really want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit. That is really his” Manzoni said of the work. Clearly, the demand was there: one tin was purchased by Tate Modern for £22,350 from Sotheby's in 2000, and in 2007, another went for £84,000 at an auction in Milan. 

One of Manzoni’s friends, the artist Agostino Bonalumi, insisted that the tins weren‘t filled with faeces, but plaster. “If anyone wants to verify this, let them do so”, Bonalumi wrote. The Tate has chosen not to open the cans, perhaps to protect the work’s value, but also, according to a Tate spokesperson, because “keeping the viewer in suspense is part of the work’s subversive humour.” Reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, the work artfully demonstrates that anything an artist makes can be rendered as valuable, even a series of re-labelled tin cans purporting to contain human excrement.


Dalí’s outlandish stunts were a defining part of his artistic career, whether it was appearing as a guest on a 1950s game show, delivering a lecture in a scuba suit, or, scamming a fellow artist out of thousands of dollars. According to Amanda Lear, the artist’s muse and lover, “Dalí could never resist the lure of a cheque”, once swindling Yoko Ono out of $10,000. Ono offered the artist the money in exchange for a hair from his moustache, but fearing that she might use the hair for occult purposes, Dalí sent Lear searching for a blade of grass to send to her instead. “It amused him to rip people off”, Lear explained.

It’s no wonder he acquired the anagrammatic nickname ’Avida Dollars’ from Andre Bréton – a jibe at what Bréton saw as Dalí’s commercialisation, his insatiable desire for fame and wealth, and perhaps also his grifting. From avoiding restaurant cheques by handing over drawings instead, to demanding millions of pounds for a painting that he claimed was created with the venom of thousands of wasps, there are numerous stories of Dalí’s chicanery. A wildly successful artist, it’s unlikely that Dalí actually needed the money, but he thrived off courting controversy and living his brand of surrealism.


In 1998, the esteemed writer William Boyd published a biography about the artist Nat Tate, a little-known abstract expressionist who lived and worked in New York in the 1950s, before destroying 99 per cent of his art and jumping to his death from a ferry near Staten Island. According to the book, the artist’s body was never found – which makes sense, given that Nat Tate only ever existed in Boyd’s imagination. 

Despite a clue that the story could be false contained in the very name of the artist – a contraction of the National Gallery and Tate Britain – Boyd still managed to fool the art world, with significant help from his friend, David Bowie. It was Bowie who published the book and held a party at Jeff Koons’ studio filled with the glitterati of New York’s art scene to celebrate its launch on April Fool’s day.

Boyd recalls how, at the event, Bowie read extracts from the book, “absolutely deadpan” to the assembled guests, including his own statement in the blurb, which read: “The great sadness of this quiet and moving monograph is that the artist’s most profound dread – that God will make you an artist but only a mediocre artist – did not in retrospect apply to Nat Tate.”

The eloquent testimonial had guests thoroughly convinced, with some even claiming to have known of the artist prior to the monograph’s publication. Off the back of the party’s success, Boyd and Bowie had another exhibition of Tate’s work planned: this, however, never materialised, after a journalist broke the story that Nat Tate was fictitious. The art world recoiled in disbelief, and perhaps some embarrassment at failing to recognise Boyd and Bowie’s very intentional mocking of high society’s need to be ‘in the know’.