Don’t let anyone tell you that art is powerless. After all, how could something so impotent incite such carnal, ferocious acts of iconoclasm? While the sanctuary of the modern gallery implies that art is somehow detached from moral and political life, over the centuries, attacks on canvases, sculptures, and installations have served as a way for the individual to make their voice heard. Of course, sometimes, acts of vandalism are motivated by something far deeper.
In The Power Of Images, David Freedberg includes a selection of case studies of people slashing, burning, and throwing acid on artworks. Sometimes, these iconoclasts work in groups, but, more often than not, they work alone, frequently claiming to have a rational theological, political, or artistic aim. As you will see below, many of those who have attacked artworks have done so to make a statement of one sort or another.
However, Freedberg argues that individuals who attack images do so because they are unable to draw a line between the image and reality, to distinguish the difference between the artwork and the entity it depicts. This would perhaps explain some of the more unnerving psychologically-motivated acts of vandalism on this list.
As Freedberg notes in his 2021 work Iconoclasm, the destruction of images can be viewed within both political and cognitive contexts. It’s easy to see why religious extremists choose to destroy sculptures on theological grounds; what is a little less easy to understand is the mental process that underpins these acts of destruction.
One of his theories is that our brains initially respond to figural images as though they were living beings. It is only once the image has made an imprint on our consciousness that we begin to reassure ourselves that the object is inanimate. In this way, acts of vandalism can be seen not only as attempts to assert a political, religious or artistic agenda but as responses to the way in which representations of reality come to overtake and define the living world.
Below, you will find six examples in which people have attempted to destroy images, taking knives, hammers, stones, and acid to some of the most famous works of art for a variety of political, moral, and indeed psychological reasons.
A short history of art vandalism:
1885: Acid is thrown on Vasily Vereshchagin’s The Holy Family
Due to censorship in Russia, Vasily Vereshchagin was never able to exhibit his work in his native land. Several of his evangelical works, including The Holy Family and The Ressurection of Christ, were shown in Vienna in 1885 but were quickly condemned by the Catholic church.
Vereshchagin was repeatedly asked to take down his paintings but refused to do so, saying that he would only submit if compelled by the Austrian police. As the controversy surrounding the artist’s paintings grew, so did the exhibition attendance. At one point, the Catholic Church held a three-day mass of repentance and a religious procession in an attempt to atone for Vereshchagin’s sinful works. During the procession, one of the monks splashed acid on six paintings, causing significant damage to The Holy Family and The Resurrection of Christ, the latter of which underwent reconstruction.
1914: Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus attacked with a meat cleaver
In 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson marched into London’s National Portrait Gallery armed with, of all things, a meat cleaver. Face to face with the 1647-1651 work, she slashed Rokeby Venus, cutting a series of broad strokes across the canvas. Richardson later claimed that her actions were in protest of the arrest of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst the previous day.
However, this political act was also informed by a disgust for the objectifying male gaze – although that term wouldn’t be coined until much later. “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 said.
1956: Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa battered with rocks
Today, Mona Lisa sits behind a frame of bulletproof glass, gazing out on shoals of tourists armed with selfie sticks. That glass wasn’t always there, but after suffering several attacks, it was decided that the Mona Lisa would be better off behind a protective screen. Incidentally, two of these attacks happened in the same year: 1956.
The first came when a museum visitor attacked the lower half of the painting with acid, damaging a significant portion of the portrait. That same year, it was chipped by a rock thrown directly at the fabric. More recently, in 2009, a woman was arrested for throwing an English-made ceramic mug that she’d bought at the Louvre gift shop at Lisa’s imperturbable face, which is pretty brave considering how expensive those mugs are. She later said that she was upset with the French government after not being granted citizenship.
1972: Michelangelo’s La Pietà smashed with a hammer
The 1972 attack on Michelangelo’s hammer is perhaps one of the most notorious acts of art vandalism of all time. On May 21st of that year, an Australian geologist called Laszlo Toth took a hammer to the 1499 marble depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son, all the while yelling: “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!”. A group of bystanders tried to stop him, with one American man repeatedly punching Toth in the face. However, by the time he was dragged away, he’d already managed to do a significant amount of damage. After being struck no less than 15 times, La Pietà was left with a shattered arm, while parts of her nose and eyelid were also disfigured.
The attack, it was later discovered, had been triggered by Toth’s messiah complex. The year before, he’d even written a letter to the pope, urging the Vatican to recognise him as Christ the saviour. Toth was declared insane and committed to a mental hospital in Italy before being deported back to Australia.
1974: Rembrandt’s The Night Watch slashed with a knife
There have been three attempts to deface Rembrand’s 1642 painting The Night Watch. However, it was William de Rijk’s attack on the work in 1975 that did the most damage. The employed school teacher slashed 12 cuts into the fabric of the painting with a knife he’d concealed in his pocket. He was later committed to a psychiatric hospital, where, in 1976, he committed suicide.
After Rijk attacked the painting, he claimed that he was “doing it for the Lord” who “ordered him to do”. Interestingly, The Night Watch has been attacked three times, and twice by individuals suffering from psychiatric disorders. In 1911, a Navy cook took a cleaver to the painting, and in 1990, another vandal sprayed the painting with acid.
2006: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain attacked with a hammer
In 2006, Pierre Pinoncelli was ordered to pay 214,000 euros (£173,000) after attacking Duchamp’s porcelain urinal with a hammer at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. During his court hearing, he also admitted to urinating in a copy of the famous installation at an exhibition in Nimes, southern France, in 1993.
According to the former salesman, this particular act of iconoclasm was a piece of performance art designed to remind people of the since-forgotten radical function of art. “I made it fresh and new, I created something new, of which Duchamp would have approved,” Pinoncelli later said.
2014: Mark Rothko’s Black On Maroon defaced with a whiteboard marker
In 2014, Mark Rothko’s abstract work, Black On Marron, was defaced in London’s Tate Gallery by Wlodzimierz Umaniec, an artist and blogger who advocated a form of art philosophy known as Yellowism – the idea that anything can become art regardless of its use and value.
Umaniec, seeing the potential in Rothko’s 1954 piece, scrawled the tag, “A POTENTIAL PIECE OF YELLOW” in the painting’s lower right-hand corner using a black whiteboard marker. He signed the message under his pseudonym, Vladimir Umanets. The blogger spent the following year in prison, and, when he was released, wrote an apology in an editorial for The Guardian.