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Attacking Art: 5 stories of art destruction
Articles | 03 JUN 2022 Por Brenda Carrión

An activist recently threw a cake at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum, but this is just one of many recorded attacks on works of art.

In recent days, the international media have viralized the note of the activist who threw a cake at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum. Despite the scandalousness of the situation, the event did not go any further; the work was protected by a glass that received the impact of the cake (so the work was not damaged at all), and the real objective of the attacker was to seek the attention of the press to remind about the current damage to the environment .

And although this event may sound quite unusual, attacks on works of art are more frequent than we think. The reasons are usually very varied: from social movements, statements, religious and/or political censorship, to people who simply had an inordinate fascination or contempt for the work. Each case is very particular, with its own circumstances and motivations, and in this article we will share some of the most outstanding cases.

1. The "Mona Lisa" (1503) by Leonardo Da Vinci

The cake is just the latest in a significant history of attacks that the Gioconda has amassed. Few works in the world have been repeatedly victimized like this masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The first was in 1956 when a vandal threw acid at the painting when the work was on display in Montauban, France. That same year but months later, an immigrant threw a stone at the painting, removing the pigment from the Gioconda's chest. In both cases the motivation of the actors is unknown.

Years later, in 1974, a disabled woman sprayed red paint on the work while it was on display at the Tokyo National Museum; In this case, the woman was protesting the museum's lack of policies for people with disabilities. Later, in 2009, a woman of Russian nationality threw a cup at the painting in the Louvre Museum, protesting that she had been denied French nationality. For this last occasion, the painting was already protected by bulletproof glass, so it was not affected.

2. "The Venus of the Mirror" (1647) by Diego Velázquez

Currently, the vandalism of the feminist movement is highly punished socially, who commonly use monuments to write protest phrases, denunciations and names of perpetrators and victims. However, it is incorrect to say that the "feminists of the past" did not resort to this type of action to emphasize their demands; An example of this is the attack against "La Venus del Espejo" by Diego Velázquez.

In 1914, a woman named Mary Richardson entered the National Gallery in London with a kitchen ax and, taking advantage of the guard's distraction, broke the work's protective glass and made multiple cuts on Velázquez's nude. His motivation was clear:

"I have wanted to destroy the painting of the most beautiful woman in mythological history in protest against the government that has destroyed Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history." Richardson declared. Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the most important figures of the moment in the English suffrage movement that demanded women's suffrage and had been arrested by the government, motivating Richardson to attack the work.

Richardson was sentenced to 6 months in prison (the maximum sentence for the destruction of works of art), and the work was subjected to multiple restoration works that left it intact and with minimal evidence of the attacks it received.

3. "The Night Watch" (1642) by Rembrandt

Like the Mona Lisa, "The Night Watch" has its famous history of attacks, although in all cases the motivations are unknown.

The first attack came in 1911 when a former Navy cook used a kitchen knife to scratch the paint. Thanks to the thick layer of varnish, the cuts did not penetrate the canvas, leaving superficial cuts that were easily restored.

The second attack in 1975 was much more successful. A man with a serrated knife left a dozen cuts on 2 of the characters in the painting. Some of the cuts were up to 50 cm long, so the restorers were forced to repair the work on the back, joining the cuts in the canvas. The use of chemicals for this restoration resulted in the work having darker areas than it originally was.

The third and last attack in 1990 was carried out by a psychiatric patient, who had escaped from the institution where he had been admitted. The patient sprayed acid on the work, but fortunately he was intervened by a security guard who quickly applied water to the sprayed area, stopping the effect of the acid. Again, the thick layer of varnish prevented the acid from penetrating into the painting, minimizing damage to the work.

4. Michelangelo's piety

In 1975, a Hungarian named Laszlo Toth scaled the altar of St. Peter's Basilica with a hammer, and while claiming to be the resurrection of Jesus, he hammered Michelangelo's Pietà sculpture 12 times. The consequences of the attack were serious: one of María's arms was completely severed, she lost parts of her nose and one of her eyes, and several marks from the blows were left on her head.

The restoration lasted 7 months, and the restoration team used marble powder and invisible glue to patch the work and complete the missing parts. It is worth mentioning that during the restoration, the Vatican received anonymous envelopes by mail with fragments of the work; it is believed that some tourist took advantage of the confusion on the day of the attack to take the fragments as a souvenir, but later changed his mind and returned the pieces. Currently, the damage to the sculpture is practically imperceptible.

Toth, the attacker, was declared unfit to stand trial for a psychiatric diagnosis, and was only committed to a psychiatric hospital in Italy for 2 years. Later, he was deported to Australia.

5. Claude Monet

Previous cases have been of people outside the works who for personal reasons decided to attack the works, but what about the artists themselves? For some artists, self-demand can lead them to be intolerant of their own work if they consider it "imperfect" or "insufficient".

This was the case of Claude Monet, one of the greatest representatives of Impressionism. In 1908 an exhibition with paintings by the artist had already been scheduled, which had been valued at $100,000 francs. Before the opening of the exhibition, Monet considered that he was dissatisfied with his art, and with a knife and a brush, he destroyed all the works in the exhibition. Since then, several historians have started a long debate about whether or not an artist has the right to destroy his own work.

Conclusion

As we have seen in the previous list, the motivations are varied, and often unknown. Art is ultimately a cultural heritage of humanity, and we all have a birth right to be able to enjoy it or criticize it. The indignation caused by its destruction tells us that:

1. Art is an important platform that can enhance the individual or collective demands of society.

2. We all find in art a natural feeling of belonging, that when it is damaged or lost, we feel that something has been taken from us.


Sources: Daily Art Magazine, The Art Newspaper and Agencia EFE.

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