On Sunday afternoon, Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon joined the long and varied list of artworks that have been vandalised, when Vladimir Umanets wrote on the mural with black paint. The list of defaced works includes such seminal pieces as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s Pieta and David. But what drives people to partake in the willing destruction of works of art?
There are often psychological reasons to blame for art vandalism; the man who attacked Michelangelo’s David claimed to have been acting under the orders of ‘Veronese’s beautiful Nani’ – a model for the sixteenth century artist, while the Pieta vandal believed himself to be Jesus Christ. In 2007, a man put his foot through Ottavio Vannini’s The Triumph of David, having been unbearably disturbed by the sight of Goliath’s severed head.
Sometimes, a vandal will find a piece of work so objectionable that they are driven to deface it, to express their disgust and hinder it from being seen. This is what happened with Marcus Harvey’s controversial Myra, which depicted the serial killer Myra Hindley constructed out of children’s handprints. The gallery in which it hung had its windows broken and the work itself was vandalised twice with ink and eggs. Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women was likewise attacked in Washington’s National Gallery by a woman who claimed Gauguin was ‘evil’ and that the painting ‘should be burned’.
It may appear counterintuitive, but a large number of attacks on artworks are committed by artists themselves, supposedly in the name of engaging with, or even improving the piece. In 1996, Canadian artist Jubal Brown famously vomited primary colours on works by Raoul Dufy and Piet Mondrian to make a statement about ‘oppressively trite and painfully banal’ art, claiming that the former work was ‘just so boring it needed some colour’. Similarly, French artist Rindy Sim, upon leaving a lipstick kiss on Cy Twombly’s Phaedrus claimed it would make the work more beautiful, and Pierre Pinoncelli argued that his destruction of Duchamp’s Fountain with a hammer was performance art that the Dadaist would have approved of.
Umanets would place himself in to this group, having claimed afterwards to have ‘increased the value’ of the painting by using it as a platform for his ‘Yellowist’ art movement. However, it is a persistent argument that for all of the talk of artistic motives, the primary consideration of these vandals was to draw attention to themselves.
Though the vandal-artists above may reject the ‘attention-seeking’ tag, art is often openly targeted for attention, in the form of political protest. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi sprayed ‘KILL LIES ALL’ on Picasso’s Guernica as a protest against the release on bail of William Calley, who took part in the My Lai massacre; in 1987 Robert Cambridge shot a Leonardo da Vinci cartoon in the National Gallery to draw attention to ‘political, social and economic conditions in Britain’; and in 1989 a man slashed ten Dutch works in the Dordrechts Museum to protest against immigration in the Netherlands. Most famously, in 1914 Mary Richardson attacked Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, saying:
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.
Though the above may seem like separate, varied reasons that people deface art, it can all be distilled down into one very important point: art is powerful. Artworks hold the power to shock and enrage people to the point of smashing them; they inspire people to the extent of physically ‘engaging’ with them, and enrapture people to the point that a protest that encompasses the works cannot be ignored. Each attack on a piece of work, as sad as it might be, is also a shining validation of the enduring power of the painting in our modern world.
As for my interpretation, I believe that the worst attack on Picasso’s Guernica did not come from Shafrazi’s spray can, but the blue curtain which covered it up while Colin Powell spoke to the UN in favour of war in Iraq. To hide a painting of such immense power just when the world needed to be reminded of it most, is to me the greatest act of vandalism.