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Installation view of ‘Shana Lutker: Le “NEW” Monocle, Chapters 1–3’ at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, with “Chapter 2: Protestation!” (2014) (photo by Cathy Carver, courtesy the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

WASHINGTON, DC — In her ongoing series Le “NEW” Monocle, artist Shana Lutker takes a few famous fistfights instigated by Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s and, after many hours of research, creates stage sets and performances based on their circumstances and philosophical undertones.

The completed project will have eight chapters; so far Lutker has finished three, which are currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The first depicts a fight that broke out during Tristan Tzara’s final Dada event in 1923, when André Breton attacked Pierre de Massot with a cane for insulting Picasso, who was also in attendance. The second was inspired by a riot at the 1926 premiere of the Ballets Russes production of Romeo and Julieta, which Breton thought was too commercialized. The third is based on a brawl started by Philippe Soupault and Robert Desnos when they interrupted a 1925 lecture on literature and the “average Frenchman,” taking offense to the term. The combination of big egos, competition, and masculine pride, peppered with large quantities of alcohol, creates an inherent theatricality in the brawls, as rendered by Lutker, that is both fascinating and hilarious.

Installation view of ‘Shana Lutker: Le “NEW” Monocle, Chapters 1–3’ at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, with “Chapter 1: The Bearded Gas” (2013) (photo by Cathy Carver, courtesy the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) (click to enlarge)

Of course, Surrealists weren’t the only artists prone to fisticuffs. When we think of creative people getting into fights, writers usually are the first that come to mind — Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Jack London, etc. Even Lutker’s project features far more writers than artists getting into scuffles. Although visual artists may not be as notorious for starting fights, they’ve had their fair share. While Lutker continues to research Surrealist tiffs, art history is full of non-Surrealist punch-ups that would make potent fodder for future installations. We’ve compiled brief synopses of a few of our favorites.

Florence, circa 1490: Pietro Torrigiano vs. Michelangelo

As a teenager, Torrigiano was the most talented young sculptor working for Lorenzo de Medici. Then Michelangelo, who was three years younger, came along and blew up Torrigiano’s spotlight. One day, while Michelangelo was busy sketching, Torrigiano took his revenge, punching the younger artist hard and breaking his nose. Fearing the wrath of de Medici, Torrigiano fled Florence and ended up in England, working for Henry VIII.

Winner: Draw. Torrigiano technically won the fight, but he had to leave Florence at the height of the Renaissance because of it. Michelangelo, on the other hand, had a broken nose his whole life, but it didn’t seem to have an adverse effect on his work.

For the full story, see George Bull’s Michelangelo: A Biography.

Rome, 1606: Caravaggio vs. The Pimp

Ottavio Leoni, “A portrait of the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio” (ca. 1621) (Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been well documented that the hot-blooded Caravaggio got into a lot of fights, and even killed a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni. What remain unclear are the circumstances that led to the brawl. The most popular theory is that the two got into a fight over bets on a tennis match. Other theories include a duel over Tomassoni’s wife and/or a prostitute working for him, and that Caravaggio may have tried to castrate Tomassoni.

Winner: Caravaggio, although his brutish lifestyle eventually caught up with him, when he was killed by a revenge-seeker at the age of 38.

Read more about the murderous Caravaggio here.

London, 1890: James McNeill Whistler vs. The Confused Editor

Unknown photographer, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (ca. 1885) (Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection, Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Whistler was a proud peacock, often butting heads with anyone who criticized him or his work — he even sued critic John Ruskin for libel. The September 7, 1890, issue of the San Francisco Call describes a “most disgraceful and exciting fist fight” between Whistler and August Moore, editor of The Hawk. Whistler “carried a blackthorn stick, and when he caught sight of Moore he raised the heavy stick and rushed at the editor, whose hat was smashed with the first blow he received.” A brawl ensued that included the manager of the theater where the attack took place and a few of Whistler’s friends. Moore landed at least one punch, when “he struck Whistler one blow between the eyes, straight from the shoulder, which felled the artist to the floor.” The article ends with: “Moore is at a loss to account for Whistler’s conduct, since the Hawk had not published anything about him for several weeks.”

Winner: Whistler. Even after the artist was kicked out of the theater, the manager continued beating up the flabbergasted Moore. No one likes a critic.

Read the full San Francisco Call article here.

Petrograd, 1915: Kazimir Malevich vs. Vladimir Tatlin

The Futurists (both in Italy and Russia) had a tendency to come to blows over differing opinions on art and aesthetics. In the lead-up to the Russian Revolution, Malevich and Tatlin found themselves on opposite sides. While Malevich favored creativity and the philosophical, Tatlin preached order and realism. The artists’ competing ideals came to a head at the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10, where they got into a fistfight, supposedly delaying the opening.

Winner: Tatlin, if only retroactively. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the USSR praised his Constructivist ideas and banned the abstraction that Malevich held so dear.

For details on the brawl and everything that led up to it, see Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art.

Paris, 1937: Battle of Picasso’s Mistresses

Marie-Thérèse Walter had been Picasso’s mistress and model for about 10 years (and had just given birth to his daughter) when a photographer named Dora Maar came along, threatening to replace her. When the two women told Picasso to choose between them, the artist is famously quoted as having recalled, “I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they’d have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It’s one of my choicest memories.” Meanwhile, Picasso calmly returned to painting “Guernica.”

Winner: Picasso. Technically, Maar won this one, but she was replaced several years later by a new muse, lover, and model, Françoise Gilot. So, Picasso wins. Picasso always wins.

Read more on Picasso’s love life here.

New York, 1961: Willem de Kooning vs. Clement Greenberg

Willem de Kooning in his studio in 1961 (Smithsonian Institution Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

Proud of their rugged masculinity, the Abstract Expressionists couldn’t resist a good brawl, often fighting each other at Cedar Tavern and Dillon’s, their favorite hangouts. In the fall of 1961, during a lecture on Abstract Expressionism at the Guggenheim, critic Clement Greenberg (a champion of Jackson Pollock, de Kooning’s rival) commented that de Kooning’s art had been better before 1950. A couple of months later, the two ran into each other at Dillon’s, where a confrontation led to de Kooning allegedly punching Greenberg in the face. (Greenberg, of course, tells a different story.)

Winner: de Kooning, who was never worried about any trouble he may have caused with his incessant brawling. (Earlier in 1961, reporting on the fallout from a different fight, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, “DeKooning [sic], Sued in Bar Fight, Is Too Busy Painting to Appear.”)

For more about de Kooning and his fistfights, see Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens’ de Kooning: An American Master.

New York, circa 1980: Julian Schnabel vs. Brice Marden

New York-based artists in the 1980s continued the Abstract Expressionists’ traditions of heavy drinking and bar fights. In Schnabel’s 1987 autobiography, he recounts that he once got into a scuffle with Marden when, seeking to put the presumptuous younger artist back in his place, Marden called him a “student.”

Winner: Both, together with the inflated art market. Schnabel and Marden are two of the world’s richest living artists.

For more on Julian Schnabel, see his autobiography, CVJ: Nicknames of Maitre D’s and Other Excerpts from Life.

Shana Lutker’s Le “NEW” Monocle, Chapters 1–3 is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (7th Street and Independence Avenue, Washington, DC) through February 15.

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Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Originally from Bulgaria, she grew up in Washington state and lived in Washington, DC before moving to New York in 2017. Her writing has also appeared...

5 replies on “From Michelangelo to Marden, Seven Fierce Fistfights from Art History”

  1. What about Philip Guston v Jackson Pollock?! “I’m the greatest painter in the world!” “No Phil, I’m the greatest painter in the world!” And Jackson made to eject him off the balcony.

  2. Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens fight Key West, 1936. Wallace was 56. Hemingway 37. The following from letter Hemingway wrote about the incident:

    “So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.”

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