Shading artists’ bios darker than they are gives #Art reporting a black eye. Yet such reporting popped up twice this month. One embellishment – running under the headline “How a forged sculpture boosted Michelangelo’s early career” with the subhead “fake it til you make it” – was written by Mariana Zapata Editorial Fellow at Atlas Obscura. She wrote of the forgery as if it were a defining moment in his career. History shows the opposite to be true.
Romancing the stone
A bio of Michelangelo written in 1553 by Ascanio Condiva says that while studying sculpture in Florence, he carved a cupid lying like a sleeping boy and when his mentor Lorenzo di Medici saw it, he suggested that if it were made to look as if it had been buried in the earth, he’d send it to Rome as an antique and get Michelangelo a good price. And so it went. The Cardinal of San Giorgio bought it, but after learning the figure was a fake, sent an emissary to Florence to find the sculptor who forged it. Far from boosting his career, Michelangelo’s reputation was nearly lost before it started. The art world back then, knowing of the fake cupid, suspected that the #Artist’s “Laocoon and his Sons” was also a rip-off of an antiquity because it was also found buried in his friend’s backyard.
Playing it by ear
The second flawed tale was a report by Huffington Post art writer Priscilla Frank about a British art historian’s theory on why Van Gogh cut his ear off under the headline “We may finally know the real reason Van Gogh cut his ear off” with the subhead “Perhaps the most convincing explanation yet.” Hardly. Up to now the self-mutilation was attributed to a psychotic break. But historian Martin Bailey argues in his new #Book (“Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence”) that the painter mutilated himself on learning that his brother Theo was getting married. Never mind that he suffered from titinnitis – a constant ringing in his ear – which better accounts for why he attacked one of his ears than a nuptial. Bailey argues that the artist feared a married Theo would stop supporting him. But his theory is based on a letter that can’t be found. Bailey simply infers that the letter was about Theo’s engagement. “It’s a matter of putting all the clues together,” he said.
Bailey not only contends that Theo’s engagement drove Van Gogh to lop off his ear, but also pushed him to end his life: “It was fear that pulled the trigger,” he said. One wonders why an art historian and an art writer would disregard research published in 2011 by Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, that provided multiple reasons why the death was a murder rather than a suicide, For one thing, the artist took a bullet in the stomach, which is not a likely kill spot. Also, early reports of the shooting never used the word suicide. Doesn’t anyone read art history anymore?