10 Weird and Wonderful Art History Stories You Need to Know

Let’s face it: it is sometimes difficult to get high school kids excited about art history–or about anything, really, for that matter–so we always need to be on the lookout for dramatic, exciting, or strange stories to pique students’ interest. The following ten facts work as anticipatory sets, or to weave through art history lessons, studio projects, lectures, or even in conversations with students. And if you fail to use them in your classroom, these stories will still make you significantly more interesting at parties.

1. Gustav Klimt Used Cat Urine as Fixative

Gustav Klimt with cat
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The Kiss is undoubtedly one of the most iconic works of the 20th century, and a painting with which nearly everyone is familiar. What fewer people know, however, are the stories about its painter, Gustav Klimt. And what stories they are! A little research will turn up some lascivious details about his life, but even better was his fashion sense (he wore muu-muus with nothing underneath) and his studio overrun with cats (he is the famous painter version of the “Crazy Cat Lady” stereotype). His obsession with cats actually led him to cover the pages of his sketchbooks with cat urine. He believed it was the best fixative available. The odor was bad, but worse, he destroyed works that would likely be worth millions today.

2. Carl Andre Threw Ana Mendieta Out of a 34th Story Window

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Carl Andre was the well-known artist, cool and aloof, who made–let’s face it–some pretty boring work. Ana Mendieta was the up-and-coming artist, full of life, who made work filled with passion and personality. Somehow, they ended up married . . . until Mendieta died after “falling” out of a 34th-floor apartment window. Andre waived his right to a jury, and was acquitted despite a myriad of questions about her death. The most complete story of the incident and the trial can be found in this book.

3. Chris Burden Has A Blatant Disregard for His Own Well-Being

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Letting your friend shoot you in the arm? Crucifying yourself to a Volkswagen? Crawling chest-first over 50 feet of broken glass? Check, check, and check. And don’t forget the piece where he could have died from being electrocuted. Or the performance called “Dead Man” where he laid, at night, in the street, under a tarp, hoping not to be run over by a car. Or that third time he could have died from neglect in his piece called “Doomed.” Chris Burden’s penchant for violence in his performance art is equal parts fascinating and terrifying, and it never fails to elicit a strong reaction.

4. Sandy Skoglund Once Filled an Entire Room with Raw Bacon

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Skoglund is probably best known for her Radioactive Cats, but she has been doing some incredible installations for almost 40 years. They are usually brilliantly planned and orchestrated over the course of months. Sometimes you just need to break with tradition, though, and create an installation in just one day because your material is uncooked bacon or raw ground beef and those happen to start smelling pretty rank in short order.

5. There May Have Been a Conspiracy To Murder Mark Rothko

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Mark Rothko’s death has all the elements of a murder mystery. After his death, there was the  suspicious handling of his estate and a lawsuit from his family that exposed corruption in the international art world. Between betrayal, missing paintings, laundered money, and forgery, there is just enough evidence to make one think that maybe his death wasn’t a suicide after all.

6. Yves Klein Invented His Own Colors and Thought He Could Fly

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Seriously. Klein was unsatisfied with all of the options available when it came to the color blue, so he created and patented his own–International Klein Blue. He also wrote 20-minute symphonies that consisted of a single note and used entire human beings as paintbrushes. His greatest trick, however, was trying to convince the world he could fly.

7. Cai-Guo Qiang Creates Art with Fireworks So He Can Talk to Aliens

Quiana Explosions
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Cai-Guo Qiang is an incredible contemporary artist, setting off explosions with gunpowder, fireworks, and sometimes just drawing with fire. He also coordinated the “Footsteps” fireworks display you may remember from the 2008 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing. Why the pyrotechnics? He’s trying to communicate with extraterrestrials, of course.

8. Salvador Dali Drove a Car Filled with Cauliflower

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There are so many incredible stories about Salvador Dali and his antics. The pet ocelot. The most famous mustache of all time. The time he almost suffocated inside a deep sea diving helmet while trying to explain surrealism. The whole interview with Merv Griffin. Perhaps the performance that was most “out there”, however, was his trip to Paris in a car filled with cauliflower.

9. Warhol Liked to Keep Mummified Feet From Ancient Egypt in His Studio

Andy Warhol with Skull
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There are a lot of great stories out there about Andy Warhol, including a lot that he told himself. One of the best, though, had to be about the mummified foot. See, Warhol was a hoarder, and he used to fill warehouses with his stuff. He used to create “time capsules” filled with random objects, and it was discovered later that one of those objects was a foot from Ancient Egypt. Where did he acquire it? Not sure, but one theory suggests a flea market–which could be another story unto itself.

10. Tony Oursler Wants You to Have Nightmares

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Okay, Oursler doesn’t really want you to have nightmares, but his work is definitely unsettling. He is a pioneering video artist, and his installations and sculptures create environments that utilize all of the viewers’ senses. Viewing his work is a great introduction to video and installation art.

Yes, a lot of these facts are kind of weird and kind of “out there”. But, if these facts engage students and interest them in art history, they are undoubtedly worthwhile.

Are you looking for even more art history knowledge to engage your students? Be sure to check out AOE’s class Integrating Art History where you’ll learn how to enrich your lessons with newfound information.

Which of these stories are new to you?

What are your own favorite art history hooks?

Timothy Bogatz

Tim is a high school teacher from Omaha, NE. His teaching and writing focus on the development of creativity, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking skills.

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  • Jennifer Carlisle

    Wow… Thank you for sharing these amazing stories!

  • Betsy Glass

    Just wondering if telling some of these “juicy tidbits” to young people send the message: Artists are excessively weird/self-destructive, etc.

    • Tim Bogatz

      Well, I mean, a lot of them ARE excessively weird . . .
      For every artist that has one of these stories, however, there are a dozen more that are the model of professionalism. They work consistently and cleanly, often for decades. Maya Lin, Chuck Close, Wayne Thiebaud, Faith Ringgold, Jacob Lawrence, Barbara Hepworth, and Vija Celmins would be just a few off the top of my head.

    • Meredith

      Let your freak flag fly.

      • Betsy Glass

        Oh I do. We turn into freaks as we are damaged – often irreparably – by well-meaning but sadly insensitive adults. Preteens and teens don’t want themselves OR their expressions to be perceived as freakish; they are vulnerable and on automatic to identify with a culture. If and when they have the self-confidence to express themselves as freaks (“different”) should be up to them and not b/c you tell them so-and-so painted naked or have the expectation that they reveal themselves in any painful or shameful way. At 15 or 16 I would have felt extremely uncomfortable hearing that story from my teacher. (I hear by visualizing.) Van Gogh cutting off his ear might be adequate… really need more? Many professional art teachers teach in public schools – controlled by state laws – and other public venues, and are commanded to speak and behave appropriately. But here’s the barometer: Run the juicy tidbits (read: gossip, dirty laundry, skeletons) by your school’s principal or your supervisor first. BTW: What I do on my own artwork is my crazy/quirky/freakish expression, but I don’t foist any passing whimsy or ingrained desire to be perceived as cool or hip, or my political views, on my students.

  • Christopher Sweeney

    Who says Andres work is boring?Simple minded on that one,my friend….
    .

    • Tim Bogatz

      I’ll say it again, honestly; if I had only one word to describe Andre’s work, I would say “boring”. It’s not that I don’t understand it–on the contrary–it just doesn’t interest me whatsoever.
      The one piece I do like from him is the piece on the floor of the Guggenheim with metal squares that can be seen as you walk down the spiral ramp, but I think that’s more about how the viewer is able to interact with the work. And if work is dependent on site-specificity to hold the viewer’s interest, I don’t mind categorizing it as less than exciting.

  • Katelyn Smith

    Wonderful synopsis! It is often like celebrity stories in that the oddities are what tend to interest us. Not all artists are like this, but it is interesting to hear the odd stories! I have a book called “The Secret Lives of Artists” that talks about oddities about several artist’s lives. Very cool!

    • Tim Bogatz

      I will need to check that out. Thank you!

  • Karen

    FYI, Carl Andre is still alive.

    • Tim Bogatz

      I was confused by your comment for a second, but then I realized that what I wrote does make it sound like Carl Andre had died too. When I said “was”, I just wanted to set the scene for their story and give it some context in the past. Sorry for the confusion!

  • Sarah

    Great stories!

    Does anyone have any “best practices” as to how to engage students in learning art history more regularly? Do you have them formally respond to work in writing or answering any questions? Through discussion? Do you formally assess their knowledge of artists and their works in any way?

    I am looking to incorporate a short weekly art history lesson with my high schoolers and am not sure what would be the most engaging way to get them to participate with the work on a regular basis.

    Thanks!

    • Tim Bogatz

      Hey, Sarah.

      I have a lot of things that I do, but it’s probably too much to share here. Send me an e-mail (timothybogatz@theartofed.com) and I would love to talk to you about it!

  • Becky Williams

    Oh, I have one oddball story that I think ranks…I heard this in college and have just researched Wikipedia for further details.

    Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was a German sculptor (1736- 1784). He did 64 character busts with very realistic, sometimes humorous and sometimes pained expressions. It is believed he had undiagnosed Crohn’s disease…a digestive problem, and he would ease his mind by pinching his rib! And looking in the mirror inspired those busts. He also seemed to be haunted somewhat. He reacted to his artwork and pain in a religious way. There is more detail in that story and I think it has wonderful parallels to how our society sees mental illness today…but let me move on.

    The busts were worth people traveling to see and even document with their own artwork. However, he wasn’t thought to be a pure genius. Public opinion maybe wasn’t on his side. In 1774, he had been working as an assistant art teacher at a college for 5 years when a lead teacher position came open and he was very much in line for the job. And with the utmost irony, he made such an impression at the interview, that he was not only not given the job, but also expelled from teaching, with reasons cited that his confusion of the head would make such an appointment detrimental to the institution. Ouch!

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  • BossySnowAngel

    I love throwing these stories at my AP Art History class. It adds flavor and makes the artists seem more multi-dimensional. It also counters anything TMZ could produce.