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National Gallery's "Evil" Gauguin incident: A brief history of crazy art attacks

April 4, 2011 - 02:21 PM
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Last Friday, the National Gallery had to restrain a woman who banged on the plexiglass covering Gauguin's nude "Two Tahitian Women," shouting, "This is evil." No damage was reported, though the painting is being examined more thoroughly today (UPDATE: The museum says that the painting did not sustain any damage, and will go back on display tomorrow morning). The woman, whose name was not released, has been charged with destruction of property and attempted theft.

While this is the first time in a while that a painting has been attacked in the National Gallery (The Washington Post recalls two incidents: One in 1974, when a man ripped a painting from its mounting and used it to smash a Renaissance-era chair into 30 pieces; and another in 1978-79, when an assailant used a sharp instrument to deface 25 works of art, including paintings by Henri Ma­tisse and Pierre-Auguste Renoir), famous paintings are damaged by people all too often — either because they're careless, they're mentally ill, or they're artists trying to make a scene. Most of the works that are damaged are religious, potentially offensive, or extremely expensive, but some — as in the case of a Robert Gober work destroyed in 1989, are just delicious. Will "This is evil" lady make it into the art vandal hall of fame for her attempted Hulk smash? Judge her work against these pros:

gauguin painting attacked
"Two Tahitian Women" by Paul Gauguin was attacked
at the National Gallery last Friday.

1972: Laszlo Toth climbed over a guard rail in St. Peter's Basilica and began to hack away at the Pieta, Michelangelo's most famous sculpture, with a hammer, while yelling "I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead!" The damage was extensive: Toth chipped the Virgin Mary's left eyelid, neck, head and veil, broke her left forearm and snapped off her fingers. Tourists who witnessed the rampage took shards of the statue for souvenirs, though some later returned them. The sculpture is now behind bulletproof glass, and Toth was deported to Austria after residing in an Italian mental institution for two years.

1974: Tony Shafrazi spray-paints the phrase "KILL LIES ALL" on Picasso's "Guernica" at the Museum of Modern Art. When apprehended, Shafrazi shouted, "Call the curator. I am an artist." The spray paint was easily washed clean, and Shafrazi was given five years' probation. "The judge asked me if I would promise never to do it again and I said it would be crazy to repeat an act like that," recalls Shafrazi. Why? "Because it had been done." Shafrazi is now a successful art dealer in New York.

1977-2006: Serial art-killer Hans-Joachim Bohlmann damages more than 50 paintings by a great deal of the artists of your Intro to Art History elective course, including Paul Klee, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens and Albrecht Dürer. The death of his wife, who fell from a window, was said to be the impetus of his 29-year vandalism spree, for which his favorite method was spraying sulfuric acid. Bohlmann went straight for the faces on the paintings in order to cause the maximum amount of damage. When he was convicted on multiple counts of damaging public property, his prison therapy included painting pictures of his own. Bohlmann died in 2009.

1986: A vandal with apparently very conservative taste in art attacks the Barnett Newman painting "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III," expressing his wish to "Take revenge on abstract art." The long slashes he makes in the painting, which hung in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, destroy its color field effect. When the painting is restored for $450,000, another art restorer wages a smear campaign against the man who did the work, accusing him of using a paint roller instead of a brush to create a "copy" of the work, a charge that the restoration artist denied.

1989: Ed Brzezinski devours a Robert Gober sculpture, believing it to be a free snack. At the Cooper Gallery in New York, "I noticed this bag of doughnuts sitting on a pedestal," said Brzezinski, who also works as a critic and curator. "Plain doughnuts with no sugar. I figured somebody had brought them and then gotten tired of them. So I grabbed one and bit it. It tasted stale."

1993: A security guard at the Whitney Museum of Art writes "I love you, Tushee. Love, Buns," on the Roy Lichtenstein painting "Curtains" before drawing a heart and dating his work. The St. Louis Art Museum sued the Whitney for the damage.

2007: French artist Rindy Sam planted a lipsticked smooch on an untitled, all-white Cy Twombly painting worth $2,830,000. “I didn’t think. When I kissed it, I thought the artist would have understood,” Sam told the court in the southern French city of Avignon, describing it as “an act of love.” Twombly said he was horrified by the act. Sam was fined 1,500 Euros and was required to do 100 hours of community service.

2007: A 22-year-old man with a history of mental illness put his foot through "The Triumph of David" by Ottavio Vannini, which depicts the decapitated head of Goliath. A Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal article notes that this was the second recent incident where art had been damaged at the museum lately: "A sculpture was damaged at the museum in February 2006 when drunken attendees of Martinifest, a semi-formal event organized by Clear Channel Radio, climbed on the piece. [CEO David] Gordon said there were few similarities between Martinifest and Wednesday's incident."

2008: At the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, a museum guard attacks Vija Celmens' "Night Sky #2" with some keys. "I didn't like the painting," Timur Serebrykov told police when they arrested him at the museum on May 20, the affidavit said. He added, "I'm sorry." The painting was restored, and bears a faint scar.

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