Attacks on art have been a frequent feature of the news extravaganza in recent months. In July, climate activists stuck to a copy of the The Last Supper believed to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils and scrawled ‘no new oil’ below the image, and in May Mona Lisa made headlines when a museum visitor smeared cake all over the protective glass that protects the famous painting. This incident was just the latest in a series of attacks on Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.
But these paintings are far from the only works of art that have been vandalized over the years. Here’s a chronological look at some of the most scandalous defacements in art history.
John Singer Sargent and the writer Henry James admired each other’s work. Sargent waived the fee he usually charged when he painted James’s portrait in 1913, a painting James would later declare a “masterpiece”.
The following year, a suffragette named Mary Aldham (also known as Mary Wood) attacked the portrait with a meat cleaver when it was on display at the Royal Academy in London, leaving three wounds in her wake. She was one of several activists who protested the disenfranchisement of women by vandalizing works of art. “Naturally I feel much scalped and disfigured, but you will be glad to know that I appear to have been pronounced curable,” James wrote of the incident. Fortunately, he was right and Sargent was able to recover the painting.
In 1952, Tom Honeyman, director of the Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums, bought Salvador Dalí’s Christ on the Cross to display in the Scottish city’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery. He paid £8,200 (that’s about £251,000, or almost $300,000, in 2022). Today, the painting is a beloved part of the city’s art scene. But at the time of purchase, he was much more controversial. Some complained that the picture was a waste of money, while others had even more extreme reactions.
Two members of the public attacked the artwork. The first incident was in 1961, when a 22-year-old attacked him first with a stone and then with his own hands. Then, in the early 1980s, a man shot it with an air rifle – which fortunately caused no damage, thanks to the layer of protective acrylic glass that had been placed in front of the painting after the earlier attack.
One of Michelangelo’s most iconic sculptures, Compassion, is also the only work signed by the great artist. Unfortunately, this was not the only notable mark left on the piece. On May 21, 1972, a man named Laszlo Toth briefly managed to escape security and attack the sculpture with a hammer. He caused serious damage to the sculpture while shouting a message impersonating Jesus Christ. Due to the state of his mental health, he was not charged, but was sent to a psychiatric clinic for two years.
Like Mona Lisaof Rembrandt The night watch has been attacked repeatedly and some of the incidents have caused permanent damage. The 1975 attack was particularly brutal: a knife-wielding vandal left slash marks on the painting more than two feet long. In 1990, he was attacked again, this time by a man carrying a chemical substance. Less permanent damage was done, as by then the Rijksmuseum (where it was on display) had guarded the painting around the clock to ward off potential vandals.
Some works have fallen victim to serial art vandals over the years. Hans-Joachim Bollmann was one such vandal: he attacked a number of works by famous artists, including Rembrandt, Paul Klee, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. He was sentenced to five years in prison after this initial series of attacks; after his release he continued his vandalism, spraying acid on three works by Albrecht Dürer, including The Lamentation of Christin a museum in Munich in 1988.
Ai Weiwei’s work highlights the sometimes complex relationship between the destruction of art as a creative statement and acts of unequivocal vandalism. In 1995, he created a work consisting of three photographs in which he destroyed a 2,000-year-old urn, titled Dropping a Han dynasty urn; years later he created a series known as Flower vases by adding paint to a number of vases dating from the Neolithic period. These two collections of works thematically came together when someone committed their own act of destroying his art.
In 2014, an artist named Maximo Caminero visited a gallery in Miami, Florida, where Dropping a Han dynasty urn was exhibited along with some of the Flower vases. He deliberately took one of Ai’s vases and smashed it in front of the pictures of the destruction of the Han urn. Caminero claims that this was intended as an act of protest against the gallery’s perceived lack of support for the local art scene, rather than a criticism of Ai himself. This argument did not sway the courts, and Caminero was placed on probation and fined $10,000.
The Argenteuil Bridge, an impressionist masterpiece by Claude Monet showing boats on the Seine, was the target of an attack in 2007 at its home in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay. Five people broke into the museum in the middle of the night and one of them punched a 10 cm long hole in the painting. Unlike some other art attacks, this one doesn’t appear to have been done as a protest, but rather because the vandals were simply drunk. The alarm was raised, but the intruders managed to escape from the museum without being caught. The incident has prompted people in France to call for tougher consequences for people who attack works of art.
Defacement of a work of art can come in many forms – including the form of a kiss. It happened in 2007 when artist Rindy Sam got away Phaedrus, white painted canvas while wearing red lipstick. Sam said the kiss was an act of love, not vandalism. The gallery disagreed (and found that even after using 30 cleaning products, the lipstick could not be completely removed) and she was eventually ordered to pay a fine of €1,500.
The thinker is one of the most famous works created by the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The artist made several casts of the original, which eventually ended up in a number of places around the world. One of them, on display in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was vandalized in 2011 when it was spray-painted pink and tattooed. Controversy grew when some claimed that restoration attempts after the vandalism caused even more damage to the sculpture itself.
Mark Rothko was known for his remarkable use of color. Many years after his death another artist tried to use one of his works, Black on maroon, as a way to promote his own movement in art, “yellowness”. Vladimir Umanets approached the work at London’s Tate Modern and scrawled his name and the quote “A Potential Piece of Yellowism” in black paint onto the Rothko canvas. Fortunately, the painting was restored and went on display again in 2014.