Revealed: the artwork sneaked into a German gallery by an employee – and the story behind it

<span>The untitled artwork by a gallery technician was swiftly removed.</span><span>Photograph: No Credit</span>
The untitled artwork by a gallery technician was swiftly removed.Photograph: No Credit

The first picture that greeted visitors to the first-floor exhibition space in Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne gallery on 23 February may not have immediately grabbed their attention.

The 60cm by 120cm artwork was a retro-looking photograph of a family of four, with the background and parts of the faces and bodies roughly painted over in white. It was unassuming compared with the video- and photo-based artworks in the adjacent rooms, but only on closer inspection might visitors have wondered why there was no label giving the artist or the work’s title.

The real reason only became public last week: the nameless painting, the content of which has not been previously made public, was not the work of a modern master selected by the curators, but the creation of a 51-year-old technical worker employed by the museum, who had sneaked it into the show in the early hours of the morning.

The Pinakothek, which has one of Europe’s largest collections of modern and contemporary art, removed the painting after closing time, sacked the technician and kept quiet about the incident.

When news of the stunt found its way to the German press via a police report last Monday, the museum downplayed it. “A little hoax, a trifling matter,” a spokesperson said. A first report in Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper framed the incident as a wannabe-artist seeking an “artistic breakthrough” by putting himself in the company of Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and others.

But museum insiders say that far from being a brazen shot at fame, the artwork was meant as a critical intervention by one of the people who help make exhibitions happen but usually remain invisible, designed to provoke debate about elitism in the art world.

Early reports failed to mention that the special exhibition in which the picture was hung was all about errors and malfunctions in art, and called Glitch: On the Art of Interference.

Its aim, according to the catalogue, was to “uncover normative orders and sociopolitical disparities” and “make visible what is invisible”.

“The motive behind smuggling that picture into the exhibition was to see if the directors of the museum were prepared to practise what they preach”, said one person familiar with the events. “It was an artistic challenge. The technician who hung up the picture wasn’t lusting for fame.”

The curator of the Glitch exhibition said developing the show had taught her to accept imperfections and accidents. “Who is to determine what is perfect?” she told Bavarian Sunday paper Sonntagsblatt. “When dealing with mishaps, it’s quite possible to show a degree of serenity.”

In dealing with an unwanted painting, however, the Pinakothek found serenity harder to come by. It said the technician, who worked part-time at the museum, had been barred from all Bavarian State Painting Collections galleries for three years and had signed a “dissolution agreement”. These nullify an employee’s contract, but often also contain confidentiality clauses.

So far, the technician-artist has neither been named nor commented on the affair. A spokesperson for the Pinakothek last week declined to either name the employee nor describe his picture, for fear of “encouraging copycat pranksters”.

In a statement later in the week, the museum rejected the idea that hanging the picture was an “artistic intervention”, because no hurdles had been overcome; it was merely a breach of trust.

“Employees must comply with security concepts and not jeopardise valuable cultural heritage,” it added. A criminal complaint against the technician for damage to property was withdrawn in March.

The Pinakothek did not respond when asked if its dealings with the affair were at odds with the message of its exhibition.

Curators of an exhibition in Bonn last year took a very different approach. When taking down a temporary exhibition entitled Who We Are – Reflecting a Country of Immigration, they were surprised to find an extra painting on their hands. They put out a message on social media saying: “We think this is funny and would like to know the artist. So get in touch! There will be no trouble. Word of honour.”

The artist, Danai Emmanouilidis, came forward and saw her painting fetch €3,696 at auction in Cologne.