Where is the line between genius and madness? The Belgian artist, poet, and art thief Stéphane Mandelbaum’s attempt to create a lasting mythology of himself led to a macabre, untimely death.
To understand the Belgian artist Stéphane Mandelbaum, it is best to begin at the end of his life. Few agree on how he lived, but most agree on how he died. It was garish and violent. He was shot in Namur, in central Belgium. Acid was splashed on his face to make his body harder to identify. His corpse was thrown into a landfill. He was twenty-five years old. His bright, brief life and his art-brut style are often compared to those of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but whereas Basquiat found his way to the center of the art world, Mandelbaum was always an outsider. His life was a mixture of realities and self-imposed fictions that were so potent that even he forgot who he was. At the crucial moment of his death, Mandelbaum thought he was a hardened criminal when, in truth, he was closer to a doughy artist, a controversial but ultimately bashful poet of the visual.
His death came in December 1986 when he had attempted to steal a painting by Amedeo Modigliani called The Woman with the Cameo from an elderly woman’s home in Ixelles, a tony suburb of Brussels, along an avenue studded with art deco buildings. He had been promised money for the painting from friends who had connections to the black market. Having made almost no money from selling his own art, which was largely deemed too perverse and risqué, he desperately needed the funds. The problem was that there is no such painting by Modigliani called The Woman with the Cameo. What he stole was entirely fake. It is impossible to know whether Mandelbaum was aware of this or not—or whether or not the woman who owned it knew—but, when he turned it over, his buyers realized the truth and murdered him. That is, at least, the most agreed upon story. Almost nothing about Mandelbaum is certain. Read More