Art Conspiracy – What’s Really Behind It All?

The Art World can be a funny place, with hidden puzzles and secrets dotted throughout the artists work – a conspiracy theorists dream – and here’s a few of the believable, ludicrous and even completely true theories that we’ve come across…

1 – Van Gogh’s Ear

Vincent Van Gogh seemed to pave the way for the mad artist stereotype, as the famous story goes that he sawed off his own ear in a fit of tortured madness – a tale of lunacy that only seems to have added to his popularity. However German academics Hans Kauffman and Rita Wildegans have come up with a conspiracy theory that this story is in fact completely fabricated.

The historians claim, in the book Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence, that it was actually Van Gogh’s friend and fellow artist Paul Gaughin who swiped the ear off with his sword as the two fought – with Van Gogh wrapping up the ear and handing it to a prostitute after. The tale of the tortured artist was a cover-up invented by Van Gogh to protect Gaughin from police prosecution – clever – and the two became involved in a ‘pact of silence’.

Kauffman and Wildegans state that Van Gogh hints at this pact in his correspondences and even in his sketches. The cover-up was ideal for Gaughin as he used it for his own self-defence and Van Gogh used it to protect his friend, that it’s speculated he was infatuated with. So the famous act of a mad artist may transpire to have simply been a big cover-up to escape from the cops.

2 – Mona Lisa

There are so many conspiracy theories surrounding what is arguably one of the most famous pieces of art in the world. It is rumoured that it was Leonardo da Vinci’s favourite piece and the fact he kept it at such close proximity to him at all times has led to many assumptions surrounding the figure depicted.

Who is the woman in the picture? Many have speculated on this subject, some arguing that the famous lady is in fact a man due to the stature, however it is noted that it would be a particularly effeminate man. Others disregard this and claim that da Vinci’s closeness to the portrait could be because it may be a portrait of his mother Caterina da Vinci. Or why not just stay sitting on the fence, as some theorists do, and declare that Mona is actually a combination of man and woman and da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa as a hermaphrodite.

Or da Vinci tricked us and it is a self-portrait that he has done, even leaving clues for us to find. Conspiracy theorists have noted the similarities to his self-portrait, claiming that the Mona Lisa looks just like a younger and breadless version of Leonardo himself. Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage have said that tiny, little, miniscule letters and numbers can be found hidden in the roving eyes of the painting – they include an L and a V which could indicate that it is Leonardo Da Vinci that we have here – a portrait of the artist himself disguised as a woman to trick us all.

mona lisa painting conspiracy

3 – Banksy

Banksy is one of the most well known and celebrated street artists, however he’s caused just as big a stir when it comes to his identity. The mysterious artist has chosen to remain anonymous, baffling his fans worldwide and prompting many conspiracy theorists to get their thinking caps on – with a popular outcome being to link him to, another famous but incredibly public artist, Damien Hirst.

Some suggest that Hirst and Banksy are one of the same and are each other, Hirst is Banksy and Banksy is Hirst. They put forward the idea that Banksy is merely an invention of Hirst, a kind of sideline project that’s grown into a bit of phenomenon. There are some pretty tenuous links, including the fact that they’re both from Bristol and are thought to be a similar age. However most, speculate that Hirst would enjoy being on opposing sides of the same coin – the public and well-known figure vs. The hidden face – secretly enjoying the irony.

Others though, do think that Banksy has his own identity and that Hirst could be his sponsor. Their art does have a strange relationship and they almost play off each other. There have been collaborations, such as Keeping It Spotless by Hirst which featured one of Banksy’s French maids. Banksy has been praised by his supposed benefactor, as Hirst told The Guardian – “I’ve always thought he was great. The streets are boring… anyone like Banksy who makes it entertaining and treats people like people instead of consumers is brilliant” (; sounds like he’s a fan then. A lot of Banksy’s work can be elaborate and one can only assume there must be some kind of support – so why not one of the wealthiest artists in the world?

who is banksy conspiracy

4 – Beatles Album Artwork

Beatle-mania had gained legions of screaming and devoted fans, with many following their every move, so imagine their distress when it was reported in 1966 that Paul McCartney had been involved in a car accident. Thankfully all ended fine and McCartney was said to be unscathed, however this prompted conspiracy theorists to come up with their own version of events – McCartney had in fact been killed and replaced by a look-alike, with police and others bribed for their silence.

It seems a pretty ludicrous theory right? But the iconic artwork on the Abbey Road album cover only fuelled these theories. At first glance they just seem to be simply walking across the zebra crossing – safety first, of course – one after the other, but some looked closer. They claim that the band had felt guilty about the cover-up and so had left clues in the artwork so that the fans would know what really happened.

The band members walk across the road one after the other and theorists say that this is actually a funeral procession and they all have a particular role – including the clergy, mourner and grave digger – with Paul being the corpse, signified by the fact that he has bare feet. The apparent imposter carries a cigarette in his right-hand (McCartney was left-handed) and cigarettes where often called ‘coffin-nails’. There are supposedly a whole host of other hidden clues – including the police van that could symbolise the secrecy of the police, the line of cars headed directly to Paul, the cracked S…

paul mccartney beatles album artwork conspiracy

5 – Denver Airport Artwork

Denver seemed to have a perfectly adequate airport and there didn’t seem to be any need for a new one to be build – particularly one that offered nothing new, no more runways and no advanced technology, but a rather creepy airport did pop up. So why build it – this is where the conspiracy theorists come in suggesting that it’s really a cover-up for a massive underground bunker or a secret headquarters for the Illuminati, New World Order or Neo-Nazis who will hide here before the world as we know it comes to an end.

The post-apocalyptic artwork does nothing but fuel these spooky theories. There are four huge murals in the airport by artist Leo Tanguma and they are certainly an odd choice for families to look at before they jet off on holiday. The unusual murals depict an apocalyptic future with genocide, death and plague being shown. Creepily there’s also the Lord of Death armed with an AK-47 killing a dove alongside the destruction of cities and extinction of animals – charming.

There is other bits and bobs dotted about the airport that excite theorists further, with artwork and sculptures that seem decidedly out of place in an airport. Keep your eyes peeled for gargoyle-like-creatures popping out of suitcases at arrivals and you couldn’t miss what can only be described as a ‘devil-horse’ sculpture outside the airport. It’s all a bit uneasy artwork that doesn’t exactly make you think of sun, sand and sea and so, of course, was jumped on by conspiracy theorists looking for hidden clues to something a bit more sinister.

denver airport conspiracy

6 – Michelangelo – The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam can be seen in the much admired Sistine Chapel. However, not all is what it seems with this particular piece. Frank Meshberger a medical student was the first to notice something slightly odd – some similarities to that of a cross section of a human brain. Conspiracy theorists jumped on this as Michelangelo has often used symbolism and created puzzles in his art and here was a brand new one.

When you look closely, the flowing robe, angels’ leg and in actual fact almost all the details can be seen to represent anatomical parts and complex ones at that. The story deepens when it was discovered that Michelangelo had been known to dissect corpse in graveyards, therefore he had direct access to the inner workings of the human body. However, he is known to have destroyed all of his anatomical illustrations – or did he merely hide them in his artwork?

There are, in consequence, theories as to what Michelangelo meant with the disguised brain (if it was meant to be a disguised brain at all). Some see it as Adam being bestowed with divine knowledge or intellect being given as a gift from the divine. And when it comes to it being hidden this can be explained too – intelligence that can lead you to God without the Church, which Michelangelo believed was possible, was condemned by the Pope with the Church being promoted as the only way in which you should reach God. It’s a pretty brave piece in the Sistine Chapel if this is the case! So did he mean a direct link to the human brain and the power of intelligence – was this simply a coincidence, an influence or a direct action?

Michelangelo The Creation of Adam

7 – Madonna with Saint Giovannino

Painted in the 15th century by Domenico Ghirlandio, Madonna with Saint Giovannino looks like a typical Renaissance Christian painting. However, there’s one little thing that could be thought of a little bit out of place, a UFO – or so conspiracy theorists say – hovers in the corner.

In the background you can see an odd disc-shaped object that appears to have lights shooting out of it into the sky – it certainly fits with modern ideas of a UFO. Theorists argue that it cannot be mistaken for the sun, as it is seen in the opposite corner. Furthermore there is a smaller figure in the background that can clearly be seen to be shielding his eyes as he looks up at the peculiar object. Alien theorists have devised conspiracy theories using images such as this one for evidence of extraterrestrial activity.

An image like this was not out of place in medieval artwork and paintings of the time – the majority being religious. The glowing object – or UFO as conspiracy theorists speculate – is often present at religious or historical times in artwork. It could really be anything, a glowing star or Christian symbolism whose meaning has been lost throughout the years or even a UFO, maybe we’ll just never know.

Madonna with Saint Giovannino

8 – CIA

Here’s a conspiracy theory that turned out to be 100% true! The CIA was involved in a huge art conspiracy – using modern art as a weapon in the Cold War. There had been many whispered theories at the time, but it was not until many years later that confessions were made by those involved and all the conspiracy theorists turned out to be right.

The CIA used modern art as part of their propaganda strategy and it played a part in the psychological warfare of the time, with millions of dollars being spent using art as a weapon against Russia. They did things like fund exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist Art. It was all in an attempt to make America look culturally rich and attractive in comparison to the straight-laced opposition. It put the USA forward as the antithesis to the Soviet’s accurate, rigid, realist and politically-tinged art, therefore making America appear free and liberal, a place where freedom of expression was encouraged – America’s looking more attractive now, right.

However, the irony lies in the fact that what was supposed to be a completely free-spirited growth of modern art was actually a highly thought out strategy by those in charge – art that appeared to break the rules had been CIA funded with government help. The organic growth of the art movement and the consequential popularity of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell may have been hugely manufactured. Obviously the art has value in itself and its popularity has reached sky-high levels now all on its own merit – but in this case the conspiracy theorists were proved right.

CIA art conspiracy


So what ones do you believe – is Paul McCartney actually dead, did Renaissance painters have a thing for UFOs? And do you know anymore conspiracy theories out there about the mysteries of the art world…?