Museums, galleries and collectors have been dealing with vandalism of artworks for decades, if not for centuries. These include masterpieces by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Rembrandt, known for their history, beauty, prestige and style. By Manas Sen Gupta
Although there has seldom been a logical reason behind vandalising some of the world’s most famous artworks, these iconic pieces have endured many things, including symbolic protests and mental health issues.
Additionally, they have also been a source of grief or anger for some like Hans-Joachim Bohlmann. He was perhaps the most notorious art vandal, whose life story is a tragedy that calls for sympathy instead of contempt.
There are others like Bohlmann who vandalised artworks because of their mental condition, but some simply used the popularity of the paintings to their advantage. They perhaps wanted to create sensation only to raise what they believe was an important political or social concern.
Here are some popular artworks that have been vandalised
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, widely recognised as one of the world’s most famous paintings, has frequently been the target of vandals.
The 16th-century Renaissance-era painting has been at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, since 1804. On May 30, 2022, a man disguised as an old lady in a wheelchair threw a cake at the painting. However, the painting was undamaged because of its protective glass.
View this post on Instagram
“While standing near the painting, this individual threw a pastry he had hidden in his personal belongings at the Mona Lisa‘s glass case. This act had no effect on the painting, which was not damaged in any way,” Louvre said in a statement.
The Mona Lisa has a long history of being targeted and was also once stolen. In fact, it was the theft in 1911 that, according to historians, gave it international fame within the two years, when it remained missing.
It was attacked twice in 1956. Once when someone threw acid at Mona Lisa while it was in Montauban, France, and later again when a tourist threw a rock at it. The impact caused the protective glass to break and damaged a small part of the painting.
Again in 1974, when the painting was on display at the Tokyo National Museum, a disabled woman spray painted the protective glass with red ink, as a protest against the museum’s policy for the disabled.
In 2009, a Russian woman threw a terracotta mug at the painting. She was reportedly angry at the French establishment for denying her citizenship request. However, the glass shield destroyed the mug.
The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist
The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist is a celebrated artwork by Leonardo da Vinci, which became the target of a vandal in 1987, at the National Gallery in London, England.
A man entered the museum with a concealed shotgun and fired at the artwork just before closing time. The pellets didn’t damage the painting directly, owing to a protective glass cover, but the glass pieces tore through the painting making a hole where the Virgin Mary’s robe was drawn.
According to a 1988 report by The New York Times, the painting was restored by a process that involved glueing back tiny shreds of paper on the painting.
It was created in the 16th century and is basically identified as a cartoon artwork — model drawings created for later transfer to panels, walls or canvases.
The painting was acquired in 1962, by the British government through public donations that generated 800,000 pounds (around USD 2.24 million at the time), as well as the government’s own funding of 350,000 pounds.
The same year, it was attacked by a vandal who threw a bottle of ink at it.
The Night Watch
Rembrandt’s The Night Watch has been the target of vandals three times — all in the 20th century.
The biggest damage came in 1975 when a mentally ill man left long knife cuts on it. That led to a major restoration of the painting. But in 2019, a white haze around the knife-damaged areas forced the conservators to undertake another round of restoration.
Apart from this, an attempted vandalism took place in 1911, when an unemployed navy cook tried cutting it with a knife. In 1990, another unemployed man threw acid on it causing minimal damage.
The giant 17th-century masterpiece housed in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, also famously escaped a Nazi attack. It was partially damaged on both sides during a move.
Danaë is a 17th-century oil painting by Rembrandt. It was bought by Russian empress Catherine the Great in Paris in 1772.
A mentally unstable man threw acid on it and tried making two cut marks with a knife, while it was on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1985.
The damage caused was significant. Over a fourth of the painting was destroyed. Museum authorities undertook an arduous restoration work, lasting 12 years.
Danaë was again displayed in 1997 behind bulletproof glass. According to Associated Press, the then museum director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, ruefully told NTV television, “The former Danaë does not exist any longer and we have to reconcile ourselves to the idea. What we have is disfigured, but yet preserved, beauty.”
Mary Richardson, a suffragette, used a meat cleaver to damage Diego Velázquez’s 17th-century masterpiece, at the National Gallery in London in 1914. She slashed the painting seven times.
Richardson did this to protest the arrest of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst.
“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,” she later said in a statement.
Richardson was sentenced to six months, and the painting was restored. In 1952, the activist also revealed that she disliked the way male visitors ogled the painting.
The White Cross
The White Cross is an early 20th-century painting by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich and part of his Suprematism collection, featuring abstract artworks such as Red Square and Black Square.
The painting shows the cross symbol in white on an almost white background. Housed in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the artwork was vandalised when a performing artist named Alexander Brener painted a green dollar sign on the cross in 1997.
Brener, who defended his action by saying that he was an artist, stirred a debate in Amsterdam society over what constitutes art and what accounts for ‘terrorism.’
American artist Helen Frankenthaler’s The Bay, a classic modern painting from 1963, is housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts in the USA. It became a target of perhaps an innocently done act of vandalism by a 12-year-old boy in 2006.
The boy, who was visiting the museum while on a school trip, stuck chewing gum on the painting. At the time, it was worth USD 1.5 million and was the most valuable painting in the museum.
Though the gum didn’t cause any permanent damage, restoration work on the vandalised artwork had to be undertaken to remove a small stain from the corner.
Unfortunately, the boy was suspended by the school.
Known as one of the most famous acts of artwork vandalism, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was attacked in 1974. It’s not just because of the illustrious creator but the eventual fame of the man who vandalised it — Tony Shafrazi.
Shafrazi sprayed the words “Kill Lies All” on the painting while it was on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, USA. He was protesting the pardon granted to American soldier William Calley, convicted for his involvement in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, by the then USA President Richard Nixon.
According to The New York Times, when he was taken away by the police, Shafrazi shouted, “I’m an artist, and I wanted to tell the truth.”
The painting was not damaged because of the thick coat of varnish on it. The red ink from the spray paint was quickly removed by the museum’s conservators.
Guernica is a masterpiece by the legendary Picasso, created in grey, black and white in 1937, in protest of the bombardment of the Basque city of Guernica by Fascist allies of General Francisco Franco, during the Spanish Civil War.
And what about Shafrazi? Today, he is one of the biggest names among art dealers, having created the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. He also helped bring iconic graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat to the international market.
Black On Maroon
The 1958 artwork by American abstract painter Mark Rothko was on display at London’s Tate Modern gallery when it was vandalised by artist and blogger Wlodzimierz Umaniec in 2012.
Using a black marker, Umaniec wrote the words “A potential piece of yellowism” on a corner of Black On Maroon.
Before his arrest, Umaniec spoke to the BBC and defended himself, saying that “art allows us to take what someone’s done and put a new message on it.” He also said that he was part of a movement called ‘Yellowism,’ which believed in the concept of “not art or anti-art”.
After his release from prison almost a year and a half later, he apologised to the British people for his actions.
Meanwhile, it took 18 months for the Tate Modern gallery to restore the vandalised artwork before putting it back on display in 2014. Following a successful restoration, the then conservator, Rachel Barker, told BBC that the museum “did think the worst” when the painting was damaged.