Kissing the Canvas: 5 Bizarre Attacks on Art

Categories: Visual Arts

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Michaelangelo's Pietà. Note Mary's lack of a left arm.
A few days ago, freelancer Lauren Marmaduke sent us a link to a Washington Post story about a woman who recently assaulted a Matisse painting at the National Gallery. Naturally, we appreciated the irony of this so-called "art attack" and its significance to this blog's name. But what's interesting about the story is that this wasn't the woman's first offense against art. In fact, the story goes, she had entered the same art museum back in April and smashed a Gauguin painting (she really has a thing for French modernists, doesn't she?) three times against a wall before she was restrained. The single incident is entertaining, if a bit perplexing, but as we researched the phenomenon of "art attacks," we realized a larger, simple question was at issue: What makes people destroy art?

Certainly, there are psychological reasons: According to the Washington Post story, the woman told investigators after the Matisse incident, "I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it's very homosex­ual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned. I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you."

Throughout history, though, people have attempted to destroy art as a social or political statement. Others have done it as their own artistic statements. Still others have vandalized art out of love. Here are five of the most interesting.

5. In 2007, French artist Rindy Sam kissed an all-white Cy Twombly painting worth $2.8 million, leaving lipstick on the canvas. Sam told the courts it was an "act of love," and said, "When I kissed it, I thought the artist would have understood." Apparently, Twombly was horrified, and Sim was fined 1500 Euros and sentenced to 100 hours of community service.

4. In 1989, a man entered the Dordrechts Museum in the Netherlands and slashed ten Dutch works in two minutes. The man blamed the act on foreign workers and told authorities, "By letting all those foreigners live in our country, we are throwing away our Dutch culture -- thus, there's no need for those paintings anymore." Ironically, after his release he began selling his own works of art. Unfortunately, we can't tell you exactly who he is so you can snag one of his works, because Dutch law protects criminals' anonymity.

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3. Ten African American men attacked David Hammons's How Ya Like Me Now?, a portrait of Jesse Jackson as a white man, with sledgehammers in 1989, perceiving the work as racist. Hammons, an African American himself, actually intended the work to be a social commentary on the absence of portraits of important African Americans in the National Portrait Gallery, not far from the public space where the billboard-sized work was being installed. On seeing the work, which wasn't damaged, Jackson wasn't offended and said, "It's the reality behind the picture. That's the insult."

2. In 1914, Mary Richardson attacked Diego Velasquez's Rokeby Venus in London's National Gallery with a hatchet, in protest of the arrest of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who was on hunger strike in Holloway Prison at the time. As a result, many museums closed their doors to unaccompanied women.

1. In 1972, Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo's Pietà with a hammer, screaming "I am Jesus Christ -- risen from the dead." Toth was never charged and was instead sent to a mental hospital, where he stayed until 1975. In a dramatic twist, the restorers assigned to repair the damage discovered a previously unknown monogram "M" -- Michelangelo's signature -- on the Madonna's left palm.


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