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Weird, Wacky, and Worrying: Attacks on Famous Art Works
It's tough being a famous artwork...
Art Stuff 21 Jun 2022

At the end of May, the Mona Lisa was attacked for the fifth time in 60 years, and the story is a wild one: a man, dressed as a little old woman (with a wig and wheelchair), threw a piece of cake at the 519 year-old painting. As he was being escorted out he shouted in French: “think of the Earth. There are people who are destroying the Earth. Think about it. Artists tell you, think of the Earth. That’s why I did this”. Which is deep, but reporters seemed more interested in the frosting smeared on the bulletproof glass rather than the climate crisis.

The Mona Lisa has had red paint, a cup of coffee, a rock, and sulphuric acid thrown at it in the last 60 years. It’s tough being the most famous artwork in the world…

The word “vandalism” comes from a French word “vandalisme” first used by Henri Grégoire to describe the destruction and damage of artwork during and following the French Revolution. Here are some of the most jaw-dropping acts of vandalism that have ever shaken the gallery world:

Hans-Joachim Bohlmann’s Victims

The Goldfish – Paul Klee, 1925

Between 1977 and 2006, Bohlmann damaged over 50 artworks with a total value of over £115,000,000. The paintings attacked included works by Klee, Rubens, Dürer, and Rembrandt. His weapon of choice was acid or fire, and he apparently turned to vandalism following the death of his wife and a long-term personality disorder.

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch

The Night Watch – Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

The Night Watch has had its fair-share of attacks. In 1975 it was slashed with a knife by unemployed teacher William de Rijk, leaving dozens of zigzag cuts through the canvas – you can still see traces of the damage today.

Rodin’s The Thinker

The Thinker – Auguste Rodin, 1881

In 1970, a pipe bomb was set off which blew the legs off Rodin’s The Thinker situated at the front of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is thought that the bomb was planted by the radical Weather Underground group. The damage could not be repaired but the Museum kept the sculpture in its original position because it was one of the very few original editions of the artwork make by Rodin himself.

Picasso’s Guernica

Guernica – Pablo Picasso, 1937

In 1974, in reaction to Richard Nixon pardoning William Calley’s actions in the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War, gallery owner Tony Shafrazi spray painted ‘KILL LIES ALL’ across Picasso’s masterpiece in large red letters.

Malevich’s The White Cross

The White Cross – Kazimir Malevich, c.1927

The performance artist Alexander Brener painted a green $ on Malevich’s The White Cross in 1997, and explained during his trial: “The cross is a symbol of suffering, the dollar sign a symbol of trade and merchandise – What I did was not against the painting. I view my act as a dialogue with Malevich.”

Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus

Rokeby Venus – Diego Velázquez, c.1647-51

In 1914 the suffragette Mary Richardson attacked the Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. Her attack was prompted by the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst the day before, and in a statement she released after the attack she said: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”, adding in 1952 that she didn’t like how men would gawp at the painting, either.

Michelangelo’s Piéta

Piéta – Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, c. 1499

“I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!” shouted the Australian geologist Laszlo Toth as he hit Michelangelo’s Piéta with a hammer. Mary lost part of her arm, nose, and eyelid during the attack. Toth was tackled and attacked by by standing tourists. Toth really did believe he was Jesus, and the year before he had written to the Pope to ask to be recognised as the new Messiah.

Author: Verity Babbs

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