When studying art history, the names of artists hold a special significance in identifying personal styles. For example, one can easily identify an abstract, fragmented Cubist work as being that of Pablo Picasso, or a painting composed of bold brush strokes attributed to Vincent Van Gogh. However, sometimes it is more difficult for art historians to attribute artwork to a specific person. Other times, an artist chooses to remain anonymous, and despite copious speculation of the identity of these artists, anonymity in art provides interesting commentary on why our society values artistic personas and recognition. In many cases, anonymity itself becomes a defining factor of an artist’s identity and work.
The earliest cases of anonymous artists exist in the discoveries of prehistoric cave paintings. These paintings were created before our modern concept of “the artist”. Thus, these paintings and engravings will likely never be attributed to a singular figure, yet their impact is valuable when observing the historical importance of artistic expression. For example, one of the most well-known collections of prehistoric artwork is settled inside the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Over 600 paintings and 1400 engravings adorn the walls and ceilings of the cave, depicting large mammals that once populated the region. Interestingly, there is one human figure painted on the cave walls, a rare representation in most Paleolithic art. Scholars have theorized that the artwork was possibly created collaboratively as an aspect of a spiritual ritual, with the cave system itself operating as a religious sanctuary. Unfortunately, the Lascaux Caves closed to the public in the 1960s. The influx of tourists from around the world, bringing with them carbon dioxide particles, caused the cave paintings to begin to deteriorate.
As the concept of artistic personas became established in society, so did the desire to know the face behind the art. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the patronage system gave fame and notoriety to many artists for their unique work. Patronage depends on artistic identification, so the concept of anonymity in this era is rare. However, during the Northern European Renaissance, artists did not sign their pieces. In fact, Jan Van Eyck is the only 15th-century artist from Northern Europe that was known to sign his paintings, often writing “I Jan Van Eyck was here” or his motto “As I can” on his completed works.
One artist from the Northern European Renaissance has intrigued historians for decades. In 1926, German art historian Max Jakob Friedländer attributed a group of similar paintings of the Virgin and Child in an intricate landscape to the “Master of the Embroidered Foliage,” given this name for the foliage in the landscape that bears a resemblance to embroidery stitches. Therefore, although the Master of the Embroidered Foliage lacks an identity, historians have constructed one for them. Three out of five of the Master’s paintings are in the United States. The Clark Art Institute art museum and research institution in Williamstown, Massachusetts, conducted an investigation of the paintings in the early 2000s, concluding that:
"Our analysis, based on laboratory study and consideration of fifteenth-century workshop practices, demonstrates that these panels were all produced between 1482 and the early 16th century not by one but by several artists, perhaps sharing a common template for the main figures. Unless further conclusive evidence comes to light, however, we will continue to attribute the paintings to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, while acknowledging that this is a catch-all name referring to a number of painters active in Brussels and Bruges in the late 15th century."
Although art historians have accurately attributed most famous pieces of the Surrealist movement to their rightful creators, the surrealists extensively appropriated images and objects in their collages and sculptures. Thus, some pieces from the Surrealist movement raise questions about authenticity, originality, and authorship. For example, artist Marcel Duchamp would frequently reimagine pre-made objects and label them as unique artworks. Duchamp’s Fountain featured a readymade porcelain urinal turned on its back with the label “R. Mutt 1917” inscribed across it. Duchamp had purchased the urinal from a supplier with the intention of creating art from it. Readymade objects do not credit the original creator of the object itself. Therefore, is Fountain a unique creation of Duchamp or the anonymous creator of the urinal itself? The Society of Independent Artists rejected Fountain due to its incredibility, proliferating the piece as one of the most controversial artworks in history.
Today, anonymity in artwork creates an aura of mystery and an artistic persona within itself. Perhaps one of the most famous “no name” artists is Banksy, a street artist whose work is recognized by millions but whose personal identity is virtually unknown. Due to the illegality of street art and graffiti, anonymity is necessary. However, Banksy’s art became a sensation on social media, leading many fans to find importance in his lack of identity. Despite Banksy’s anonymity, he is incredibly vocal on social media. In 2022, the clothing retailer Guess created a new collection: jackets and t-shirts adorned with Banksy’s graffiti. Banksy’s anti-establishment views sparked an Instagram post calling out the company. The post features the text, “Attention all shoplifters: Please go to GUESS on Regent Street. They’ve helped themselves to my artwork without asking. How can it be wrong for you to do the same with their clothes?”
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