Attacks on art have been in the news fairy often in recent months. In July, climate activists glued themselves to a copy of The Last Supper believed to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci’s students and scrawled “no new oil” beneath the image, and in May, the Mona Lisa made the headlines when a museum visitor smeared cake all over the protective glass that guards the famous painting. That incident was just the latest in a series of attacks on the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece.
But these paintings are far from the only works of art to have suffered vandalism over the years. Here is a chronological look at some of the most infamous defacements in the history of art.
John Singer Sargent and the writer Henry James admired each other’s work. Sargent waived the fee he usually charged when he painted James’s portrait in 1913, a painting that James would subsequently declare a “masterpiece.”
The following year, a suffragette named Mary Aldham (also known as Mary Wood) attacked the portrait with a meat cleaver when it went on display at London’s Royal Academy, leaving three gashes in her wake. She was one of several activists who protested women being denied the right to vote by vandalizing artwork. “I naturally feel very scalped and disfigured, but you will be glad to know that I seem to be pronounced curable,” James wrote of the incident. Fortunately, he was right, and Sargent was able to restore the painting.
In 1952, Tom Honeyman, the director of Glasgow’s art galleries and museums, bought Salvador Dalí’s painting of Christ on the cross to display at the Scottish city’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery. He paid £8200 (that’s around £251,000, or almost $300,000, in 2022). Today, the painting is a beloved part of the city’s art scene. But at the time of the purchase, it was much more controversial. Some complained the painting was a waste of money, while others had even more extreme reactions.
Two members of the public attacked the artwork. The first incident was in 1961, when a 22-year-old went at it first with a stone, then with his own hands. Then, in the early 1980s, a man shot it with an air rifle—which fortunately caused no damage, thanks to the layer of protective acrylic glass that had been installed in front of the painting following the earlier attack.
One of Michelangelo’s most iconic sculptures, the Pietà, is also the only work the great artist ever signed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only noteworthy mark left on the piece. On May 21, 1972, a man named Laszlo Toth managed to briefly evade security guards and launch an attack on the sculpture with a hammer. He caused severe damage to the sculpture while shouting out a message declaring himself to be Jesus Christ. Due to the condition of his mental health, he was not charged, but sent to a mental institution for two years instead.
Like the Mona Lisa, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch has been attacked on multiple occasions, and some of the incidents caused permanent damage. A 1975 attack was particularly severe: A vandal carrying a knife left slash marks on the painting more than two feet long. In 1990 it was targeted again, this time by a man carrying a chemical substance. Less lasting damage was done as by then, the Rijksmuseum (where it’s displayed) had the painting guarded around the clock to fend off potential vandals.
Some works have become the victims of serial art vandals over the years. Hans-Joachim Bohlmann was one such vandal: He attacked a number of works by renowned artists including Rembrandt, Paul Klee, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Peter Paul Rubens. He was sentenced to five years in jail following this initial series of attacks; after his release, he continued his vandalism, splashing acid on three works by Albrecht Dürer, including the Lamentation of Christ, at a museum in Munich in 1988.
The work of Ai Weiwei highlights the sometimes complex relationship between the destruction of art as a creative statement and acts of unambiguous vandalism. In 1995, he created a work that consisted of three photographs of him destroying a 2000-year-old urn, titled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn; years later, he created a series known as Colored Vases by adding paint to a number of vases dating from the Neolithic period. These two collections of work thematically came together as someone carried out their own act of destruction on his art.
In 2014, an artist named Maximo Caminero visited a gallery in Miami, Florida, where Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn was being exhibited alongside some of the Colored Vases. He deliberately took one of Ai’s vases and smashed it in front of the photos of the Han urn destruction. Caminero claimed it was intended as an act of protest at the gallery’s perceived lack of support for the local art scene, and not as a critique of Ai himself. That argument carried no water with the courts, and Caminero was put on probation and fined $10,000.
Le Pont d’Argenteuil, an Impressionist masterpiece by Claude Monet showing boats on the river Seine, became the subject of an attack in 2007 at its home in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. Five people broke into the museum in the middle of the night, and one of them punched a 4-inch-long hole in the painting. In contrast to some other attacks on art, this one appears not to have been done as a protest but rather due to the vandals simply being drunk. The alarm was raised, but the intruders managed to escape from the museum without being caught. The incident led people in France to call for stronger consequences for people who attacked works of art.
The disfigurement of a work of art can come in many forms—including in the shape of a kiss. This happened in 2007, when the artist Rindy Sam smooched Phaedrus, a white painted canvas,while wearing red lipstick. Sam said the kiss was intended as an act of love, not of vandalism. The gallery disagreed (and found that even after using 30 cleaning products, the lipstick could not be entirely removed), and she was eventually ordered to pay a fine of 1500 euros.
The Thinker is one of the most famous works created by the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The artist made several casts of the original, which eventually wound up in a number of locations around the world. One of these, exhibited in Buenos Aires, Argentina, became the target of vandalism in 2011 when it was spray painted pink and given a tattoo. The controversy grew when some argued that restoration attempts following the vandalism caused even further damage to the sculpture itself.
Mark Rothko was renowned for his remarkable use of color. Many years after his death, another artist attempted to harness one of his works, Black on Maroon, as a way to promote his own art movement, “yellowism.” Vladimir Umanets approached the work at London’s Tate Modern and scrawled his name and the quote “A Potential Piece of Yellowism” in black paint on Rothko’s canvas. Fortunately, the painting was restored, and it went back on display in 2014.
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