Art history’s Secret Wars

Secret Wars is a real event where two street artists battle it out for 90 minutes, with black marker pens and paint, with musical accompaniment from a DJ in front of a live audience to create the best piece of art.

What if historic artists had competed in their own Secret Wars?

Leonardo da Vinci vs Michelangelo Buonarroti

Accompanied by lute players the two Renaissance artists battle it out in black ink. Although Leonardo is the better draftsman he is lazy and easily distracted, joining in with the lute players at one point. Michelangelo, who is 23 years younger than Leonardo doesn’t suffer from either faults, so it might have been a close contest. Then I let my imagination go wild with the idea in full colour tie-breaker. After a quick start where Leonardo covers his whole wall in a rough sienna brown wash while Michelangelo was still lightly sketching in his design. Then Leonardo’s experimental aerosol pump brakes down. Leonardo tries to fix his pump, sketched in a few details in pen, then gave up and left. Leonardo was notorious for not finishing work and employing experimental techniques (although not the use of an aerosol spray). Michelangelo quickly filled the colours and won the acclaim of the crowds even though his woman looked like a man with breast implants. No contest, Michelangelo by default.

Other battles are more difficult to determine. Although Michelangelo is a fast painter capable of painting a face faster than plaster can dry, something he had to do many times when painting frescos, he was a lot slower than El Greco with his speedy style that elongates everything. Who do you think would win in a painting battle: Picasso vs Matisse? Warhol vs Lichtenstein? Gauguin vs Van Gogh?

If there were secret wars in the past then art history might have been very different: John Martin might be a more familiar name in 19th century British painting such was his popularity with the public for apocalyptic images. John Martin was so popular that 5,000 people paid to see his 1821 painting “Balthazars Feast”; the first blockbuster exhibition.

There was the ancient and legendary secret war, reported by Pliny the Elder, between two artists in ancient Greece: Zeuxies and his contemporary Parrhasius. Both paintings were completed in secret and covered with curtains. Zeusies uncovered his painting of grapes so realistic that birds pecked at them. Triumphantly Zeusies then asked Parrhasius to remove the curtain from his painting only to be told that it was only a painting of a curtain. Zeusius conceded defeat.

So why haven’t artist’s competitions, like Secret Wars, featured more in the history of art? There have been battles for commissions, art prizes and positions in arts academies of various countries but these have not been democratic contests like Secret Wars. Those at the top of the hierarchy have traditionally awarded excellence in art.



About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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