Art Vandalism: 5 Things You Should Know About This Crime

art vandalism
Just Stop Oil activists protesting at The National Gallery, London, via CNN; with Austrian activists of “last generation Austria” splashing a Gustav Klimt painting with oil in the Leopold museum in Vienna, Austria, 2022, via AP Photo/Letzte Generation Oesterreich

 

Art vandalism is a terrible yet bloodless crime that both enrages and fascinates people. The deliberate destruction of art is just as old as art itself. As soon as humanity started attributing value to things, the other decided to endanger it. Here are five things you should know about art vandalism. Let’s try to figure out what makes people slash, burn, or break pieces of art.

1. Is Art Vandalism A Recent Phenomenon?

rembrandt night watch photo
Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, via Wikimedia Commons

In the ruins of Pompeii, you can find traces of offensive graffiti and silly little drawings, proving that humanity hasn’t really changed that much. However, only in the past few centuries have we started to perceive art as something so remarkable and invaluable that its condition and preservation became the primary concern. Despite the history of art vandalism being long enough, the thorough record of the cases began only in the nineteenth century.

While some historians attribute historical cases of iconoclasm to the category of art vandalism as well, others do not agree. Iconoclasm, or mass destruction of religious symbols and images, was usually a large-scale event initiated and conducted by a certain body of authority. Art vandalism is an act of a small group of people or, in most cases, a single individual.

2. What Motivates an Art Vandal?

velazquez venus painting
Diego Velázquez, Rokeby Venus, c. 1647-1651, via Wikipedia

Art vandalism is an act assertive enough to be studied in great detail. We all have works of art we dislike or even despise, yet these feelings rarely drive us to the act of physical destruction. Generally, the most popular motives for an art vandal include politics, religion, obsessive ideas caused by their psychiatric condition, monetary gain, or self-expression. Most cases of art vandalism present a combination of two or more motives.

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Art vandalism as a political act is perhaps the most conversation-provoking. Destroying or damaging the artwork as a protest against political and cultural establishments rarely brings the result envisioned by the attacker, yet never fails to attract attention. In 1914 a suffragette Mary Richardson attacked a work made by Diego Velázquez called Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. She was quickly detained. She explained her actions as a protest against the incarceration of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British Suffragette movement.

Pankhurst was arrested many times before and repeatedly went on hunger strikes, so her fellow activists were concerned for her safety. By attacking a work made by Velázquez, Richardson claimed she wanted to destroy the most beautiful woman in mythological history in retaliation for destroying Pankhurst who she saw as the most beautiful character in modern history. Another reason for choosing Velázquez was the misogynistic undertone of its presentation. In an interview, Richardson admitted to being outraged by dozens of men swarming around the work and gaping at it as if the only way for a woman to be appreciated was to be conventionally attractive, nude, and put on display.

repin ivan the terrible painting
Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan by Ilya Repin, 1883-85, via Wikimedia Commons

Some art vandals are motivated by real or imaginary offenses taken by their religious beliefs. In 2018, a 37-year-old unemployed Igor Podporin entered the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow minutes before closing time. After approaching one of the most famous works of the gallery, Ilya Repin’s painting of Ivan the Terrible murdering his son, Podporin grabbed a metal post and broke a protective glass with it. Glass shards left three tears on the canvas, requiring years of restoration.

Podporin claimed that the image was blasphemous and that it offended his religious beliefs. Ivan IV, commonly known as Ivan The Terrible, is not a recognized saint of Eastern Orthodoxy yet some conservative nationalist groups insist on his canonization. Podporin allegedly believed that the narrative of violence around Ivan IV was part of the anti-Russian campaign conducted by the West. However, as the investigation went on, Podporin changed his story. He claimed that he was drunk and overwhelmed since he had never been to an art gallery before and that the painting itself forced him to attack it. Neither of the versions saved Podporin from going to prison where he spent two and a half years.

art vandalism laszlo toth pieta attack
Laszlo Toth dragged away from Pieta moments after the attack, via Finestre sull’Arte

Poor mental health is a common explanation for a number of crimes, but it rarely manifests itself as the only motive for an act of art vandalism. Although some art vandals do require psychiatric help, a political or religious motive is almost always present as well. In 1972, Lazslo Toth, an Australian geologist of Hungarian origins, attacked Michelangelo’s sculpture Pieta with a hammer, breaking Virgin Mary’s arm and nose and chipping one of her eyelids. Aged 33 at the time, Toth developed an obsessive idea that he was the resurrected Jesus Christ. Several days prior to the attack, he tried to arrange a meeting with the Pope and even wrote him letters demanding the immediate recognition of Lazslo Toth as the Messiah.

More than a hundred broken pieces scattered over the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica, with tourists picking up some of them as souvenirs. Ten months after the attack, the sculpture was back on display, this time protected by bulletproof glass. Laszlo Toth never served a prison sentence for his actions, but he was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Italy. Two years later, the authorities released him and deported him back to Australia, where Toth lived in isolation until he died in 2012.

kahlo fantasmones burning photo
Frida Kahlo’s drawing Fantasmones siniestros (1944) moments before burning down, via Connaissance des Arts

Art vandals usually feel the urge to install a very particular form of justice with no monetary gain. However, some forms of vandalism are committed with financial gain in mind. Some art experts attribute looting to the category of vandalism, especially in the cases of artifacts damaged to facilitate their sale. During the Egyptomania craze in Europe, some locals looted and broke decorative elements from ancient tombs to sell them as smaller souvenir-sized pieces.

In 2022, a Mexican businessman and NFT enthusiast Martin Mubarak purchased a drawing titled Fantasmones siniestros by Frida Kahlo. According to Mobarak, the work’s price amounted to $10 million, yet many experts believe that this number is greatly overestimated.

Mobarak converted the image into 10,000 NFTs and organized a Mexican-themed event in his Miami home, during which he publicly burned the drawing. Mobarak claimed to immortalize the work by freeing it from its physical boundaries and making it more accessible to the public. Of course, this act was not pure altruism. According to Mobarak’s plan, after a barbaric act of destruction, the prices for NFT pieces were supposed to soar. Still, the businessman failed to reach his goal: he is currently under investigation by the Mexican government for the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage.

rauschenberg de kooning drawing
Erased de Kooning Drawing by Robert Rauschenberg, 1953, via SFMoMA, San Francisco

A rather rare but fascinating cause of art vandalism is a deliberate attempt to attract attention to a vandal’s persona. This happens with regular art enthusiasts, as well as with established artists. By destroying or changing the work, the vandal proclaims themselves as an artist worthy of public attention.

The most famous case of art vandalism as an artistic statement is the work by Robert Rauschenberg titled Erased de Kooning Drawing. Rauschenberg’s case is not an act of pure destruction on its own. At the time, he was experimenting with erasing his own drawings to see if erasure could be seen as a proper artistic method. However, to achieve the desired effect, Rauschenberg needed to erase something more valuable than his own artistic experiments. In 1953, he purchased a drawing from the legendary Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, erased it, framed it, and put it on display. Although the act itself was technically a case of art vandalism, it is necessary to mention that no damage was caused apart from simply erasing the lines. Willem de Kooning was aware of Rauschenberg’s intentions and allowed him to erase the work.

3. Are There Any Serial Art Vandals?

rembrandt jacob painting
Jacob Blessing Joseph’s Second Son by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1656, via Wikipedia

Although most cases of art vandalism are, thankfully, one-time occasions, some people commit those crimes again and again even after serving a prison sentence. The most famous serial art vandal was a German named Hans-Joachim Bohlmann. Bohlmann’s life is a tragic case of a person who was failed by both medical professionals and the authorities. His vandalism spree lasted from 1977 to 2006, with media outrage only encouraging him to go further.

Bolhmann had a long history of mental illness, worsened by chaotic prescriptions by several doctors and a lobotomy that was performed on him in the early 1970s. Obviously, lobotomy made his mental health even worse and diminished his intellectual abilities. Still, the final blow was the emotional one. After the death of his beloved wife, Bolhmann was so devastated he decided he wanted to make others lose something they loved. He spent almost four decades spilling acid over the works of Rembrandt, Durer, Rubens, and many others. He only took breaks when he was in prison. The total damage caused by Bolhmann amounts to almost 140 million euros.

4. Who is the Victim of an Art Crime?

art vandalism just stop oil london
Just Stop Oil activists protesting at The National Gallery, London, via CNN

Apart from the precious work of art, there are also people who suffer from art vandalism. Art curators and restorers are the ones picking up the pieces after someone attempts to leave a lasting mark on a piece of history. Days of research and immeasurable amounts of meticulous skill are required to fix a vandalized work.

The recent case of Just Stop Oil activists spilling soup in art galleries as part of their climate change protest barely received enthusiasm from museum professionals for this exact reason. By spilling soup and glue over paintings and frames (many of which are older than the works in question), eco-activists hardly harm the oil companies they are protesting against. What they do is present museum employees with extra hours of painstaking and often underpaid labor. In the end, the protest is built on the backs of people who are just as affected by the climate crisis as the activists.

5. Art Vandalism and Restoration: Should We Restore Ruined Artworks? 

art vandalism banksy girl painting
The Girl with Ballon (Self-Destructed) by Banksy, 2018, via CNN

Although this question may sound barbaric, some experts actually believe that we should not restore the artworks that were targeted by vandals. Their main argument relies on preserving historical evidence by leaving all marks intact, including those left by vandals. First of all, the damage adds up to the long history of work, showcasing reactions and changes in perception of it over the years. Another reason is a more practical one. Every restoration inevitably means adding new materials and re-interpreting the work in the absence of its master. Many experts voted against restoring Michelangelo’s Pieta after Lazslo Toth’s attack, claiming that Michelangelo made it from a single piece of marble. Still, most experts agree that we shouldn’t encourage art vandals to leave traces of their activity on display for future generations.

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