3 Artists Who Were Really Bad at Their Art

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By Clay Wirestone

Critics mocked. Audiences jeered. Yet these three artists still found fame.

1. The World’s Worst poet

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Scotsman William McGonagall loved Shakespeare—so much so that when he got the chance to star in an 1858 production of Macbeth, he embraced the opportunity. As the title character, McGonagall attempted to write a new ending to the tragedy. He refused to die in the play’s climactic battle, sword fighting well past his cue, until he was finally too exhausted to continue.

But McGonagall’s turn in Macbeth was just a prelude to the bizarre performances to come. A handloom weaver by trade, McGonagall faced a midlife crisis when the Industrial Revolution began to threaten his livelihood. Then, in 1877, the 52-year-old had a revelation: He was meant to write verse. Despite a lack of talent, McGonagall started churning out poems. The next year, he wrote Queen Victoria and asked for her royal patronage. When Her Majesty politely declined by post, McGonagall took the response as proof of interest. He set out on foot to visit Victoria in Balmoral, Scotland, some 50 miles away. When he finally arrived, McGonagall was rebuffed by a castle guard. Still, the trip wasn’t a total failure; McGonagall managed to sell the guard a booklet of his poems before returning home.

Over the years, McGonagall worked the streets of Dundee and gained a reputation for his horrible poetry. As word spread, he was hired by local circuses to ply his trade for paying audiences. But the response was not kind—most crowds felt compelled to throw eggs and vegetables at the poet after hearing his verse. Things got so rowdy after performances in 1888 and 1889 that officials finally banned McGonagall’s act, reportedly for the poet’s own safety.

But McGonagall would have none of it. He responded in verse: “Fellow citizens of Bonnie Dundee / Are ye aware how the magistrates have treated me? / Nay, do not stare or make a fuss / When I tell ye they have boycotted me from appearing in Royal Circus.”

Despite the vast quantities of produce hurled in McGonagall’s direction, Scotland’s worst poet did gain a handful of ironic fans—especially college kids in Edinburgh. Friends sponsored the publication of a book, Poetic Gems, and several equally terrible collections followed. McGonagall died penniless, but he’s still in print today. Tributes turn up in unlikely places, too. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling named the stern headmistress of Hogwarts Academy, Professor Minerva McGonagall, after the poet.

How bad is it? In The Joy of Bad Verse, Nicholas Parsons writes of McGonagall, “The experience is like that of being driven unsteadily down a meandering road in a rattling old banger, which finally turns abruptly into a brick wall.”

But judge for yourself. McGonagall’s most famous work, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” begins:

“Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! / Alas! I am very sorry to say / That ninety lives have been taken away / On the last Sabbath day of 1879, / Which will be remember’d for a very long time.”

An unpublished manuscript of McGonagall's poetry goes up for auction in May; it could sell for as much as £3000.

2. The World’s Worst sculptor

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Moscow’s monstrous bronze statue of Peter the Great has long been a source of controversy. Created by Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the 315-foot-tall eyesore depicts an oversize Peter, improbably cloaked in Roman legionnaire garb, aboard a ship balanced on a tower-shaped wave. The statue is so deeply despised that activists once threatened to blow it up. According to some, the piece originally depicted Christopher Columbus, but the horrified United States government refused to accept it. The hideous work only found a home above the Moskva River thanks to Tsereteli’s connections—specifically, his friendship with Moscow’s former mayor.

The artist owes his career to his Rolodex. Born in Georgia, Tsereteli studied folk art and had a passion for giant, gaudy mosaics, but it was his work designing flashy resorts that got him noticed. After decorating the complex of Moscow hotels used for the 1980 Olympics, he was somehow named the People’s Artist of the USSR. But Tsereteli’s career didn’t truly heat up until after the fall of Communism, when he befriended Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. With the politician’s blessing, Tsereteli began to erect huge, tacky monuments throughout the city.

Outside of Moscow, however, he’s found less success. Tsereteli’s statues honoring Franklin Roosevelt, Honoré de Balzac, and the Colossus of Rhodes were all turned down by their intended recipients. His memorial to the victims of 9/11 was at first welcomed by Jersey City, N.J., until residents saw what he was planning: a 100-foot slab with a gash in the middle, adorned with a metallic teardrop. After the gift was declined by city officials, the memorial was erected in nearby Bayonne, N.J., where Bill Clinton—a friend of Tsereteli’s—spoke at the unveiling. Of course, no amount of celebrity could distract from the quality of the art. As one 9/11 survivor put it, the piece looked like “a cross between a scar and a female sexual organ.”

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Such global disdain might shake the soul of a lesser man. But it hasn’t slowed down Tsereteli—he’s served as president of the Russian Academy of the Arts, runs his own gallery in the heart of Moscow, and just opened up the Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art in his hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia. As Russian writer Olga Kabanova told The Washington Post: “He’s become not a sculptor but rather some kind of natural phenomenon . . . we are in the state of a hostage who starts to like his captor.”

Of course, for his part, Tsereteli doesn’t think highly of his critics: “I try not to take any notice. I’m an artist. I know what I’m doing—and I will continue doing it.”

3. The World’s Worst soprano

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Most opera singers begin their training at a young age, perfecting their voices through decades of vigorous practice. Unfortunately for young Narcissa Florence Foster, familial opposition stalled her musical dreams. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 1868, Narcissa showed some promise at piano as a child. She gave a recital at age 8, but her father forbade further study when she reached age 17. In 1885, she eloped with a doctor, Frank Thornton Jenkins, but the union didn’t go as planned. The two divorced in 1902. Nearly destitute, Foster Jenkins eked out a living as a piano teacher until she came into her inheritance seven years later, at the age of 41.

That’s when things changed. At first, Foster Jenkins used her funds to study music privately, focusing her public efforts on music-appreciation clubs. But she wanted more. She performed her first solo recital in 1912 and enjoyed it so much that she began a series of yearly concerts. Accompanied by the improbably named Cosme McMoon, Foster Jenkins attempted to sing classic operatic fare, to the delight of her socialite audience. She wore elaborate costumes, some incorporating angel wings, which she changed several times during each performance.

The recitals became so popular that they consistently sold out. Songwriter Cole Porter and opera star Enrico Caruso were fans. According to McMoon (a bathhouse clerk who enjoyed bodybuilding when he wasn’t camping it up with Foster Jenkins), the audience made sure to applaud loudly during the worst passages, to drown out their laughter and spare the singer’s feelings. In 1943, Foster Jenkins was in a taxicab crash. To her delight, she found afterward that she could hit “a higher F than ever before.” She rewarded the driver with a box of cigars!

At the age of 76, public demand whisked her to Carnegie Hall. More than 2,000 people had to be turned away. But unlike her previously sheltered performances, this time reviewers were less charitable. As one put it: “Mrs. Jenkins has perfected the art of giving added zest by improvising quarter tones, either above or below the original notes.” On the other hand, no one denied the audience had a good time.

Her life’s goals accomplished, Foster Jenkins died a month later. Today her story lives on through the play Glorious!, and there’s a tribute album to her work titled Murder on the High C’s. But for all the celebration of her ineptitude, perhaps the New York World-Telegram obituary summed up Florence Foster Jenkins’s life best: “She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here. 

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February 19, 2013 - 4:00pm
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