In the dead of the night on March 24th 1970; one of Art history’s most iconic ambassador’s was rocked from its pedestal. Someone had placed a bomb at the feet of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, forever mangling the great work. It kind of makes you wonder, exactly what was the point of that? What did Rodin do to anyone? Was his work causing too many people to stop and contemplate life and all its intricacies? Can’t have that, better blow it up- blow it up real good. The popular theory for this particular crime was it was done in protest of the war in Vietnam, possibly by members of the Weather Underground. No one was ever charged. The reasons why people attack great works of art are as varied and complex as the works themselves.
Michelangelo’s Pieta after being attacked
One theory is that (in Italy anyway) they may have an ailment known as Stendhal Syndrome or ‘Tourist’s Disease’; where people become so overwhelmed in the presence of great art they can go temporarily mad. The immediate experience of being surrounded by such beauty is too much to handle for some viewers. Art can have a profound effect and cause people to do erratic things but most people don’t walk around carrying bombs or the odd geologist’s hammer. These are obviously preordained acts of violence. On May 21st 1972 an Australian geologist named Laszlo Toth jumped a barrier in St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and left Michelangelo’s Pieta missing an arm and the tip of the Virgin Mary’s nose along with other damaging blows. He was immediately apprehended and ended up spending two years in a hospital before being deported. He was never officially charged with a crime. The act itself was greeted with a myriad of reactions ranging from horror to applause. Art restorers masterfully put the Virgin back together again and most tourists are none the wiser.
Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus after it was slashed with a meat clever
Restorers had their hands full after Mary Richardson a radical suffragette walked into the National Gallery in London on March 10th 1914 with a meat clever and left 7 large slashes in the Velasquez. The local media of the time treated it like an attempted homicide. Richardson wanted to protest the arrest of a fellow suffragette along with make a critical comment on the male gaze regarding the sexualization of women in western art. Richardson spent 6 months in jail.
The museum director looks at the damage of the Nightwatch
William de Rijk had no great agenda when on September 14th 1975 he attacked Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Nightwatch with a kitchen knife. Apparently he had been denied entry the day before because he had arrived after museum hours. This sounds like a case of extreme museum rage, that and the logic of a mentally unwell individual. Along with Mr. Toth, he mentioned God as a mitigating factor to his actions.
The reasons why people attack art can range anywhere from mental breakdowns to political protests to plain old attention seeking. In recent years we’ve had people graffiti on Picassos, vomit on Mondrians and smash Ai Wei Weis for nothing more than a ‘look at me’ moment. The worst part about those indiscretions are the perpetrators are trying to label the vandalism as art. Any half baked idea will always produce the poorest of results and if you’re that desperate for attention, use instagram and twitter like everybody else.