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    Mona Lisa Teacup Attack Joins Loony Tradition of Defiling Art

    Date: 20 Aug 2009 | | Views: 3002

    Source: Bloomberg, by Martin Gayford

    The recent assault on the Mona Lisa with the unlikely weapon of a teacup raises an intriguing question: Why do people attack art?

    It happens more frequently than you might imagine. There’s a long list of masterpieces by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Picasso and others that have been molested.

    This is far from being the first attempt to vandalize the Mona Lisa itself. Among other incidents, in 1956, a stone was thrown at it by a man disturbed at being forced into political exile from Bolivia.

    Initially, it looks as if the motivation of the Russian woman who flung the crockery at Leonardo’s enigmatic portrait on Aug. 2 was fairly standard. Not the precise reason -- it was reported that she was miffed at not being granted French citizenship -- but more generally.

    Mentally, a large number of art attackers appear to be several sandwiches short of the full picnic. This certainly applied, for example, to Lazlo Toth, who took a hammer to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” on May 21, 1972. As he did so he shouted, “I am Jesus Christ risen from the dead.” Subsequently, in court, he warned that those trying him would themselves be severely treated on Judgment Day.

    Admittedly, the man who threw acid over Rubens’s “Fall of the Rebel Angels” at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, in 1959 specifically denied that he was insane. On the contrary, he felt he had an extremely important message for mankind.

    Mad Message

    However, the nebulousness of his philosophical revelation - - that “variety continuously produces variety” -- and the other means he considered for publicizing it (committing suicide, and/or coloring Lake Constance with dye) strongly suggest that, rather than being a “misunderstood genius” as he claimed, he was in reality as mad as a biscuit.

    Nonetheless, such onslaughts on famous works of art cannot be exclusively explained by lunacy. There’s a spectrum of motivation ranging from the batty to the (almost) legitimate.

    Consider the case of Mary Richardson, the suffragette who cut up Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus” with an axe in the National Gallery, London, in March 1914. Not only did Richardson have a just cause -- votes for women -- but her action was part of a campaign that included other attacks on paintings and setting fire to buildings including railway stations and country houses. She was no lone nut-case but part of a movement. Most people today, I suppose, would support her aims though not her methods.

    There’s a myriad of explanations for this kind of high- profile vandalism ranging from moral disapproval -- Richardson disliked the way male visitors ogled the nude Venus -- to thwarted artistic ambition.

    David’s Toes

    The unsuccessful painter who battered the toes of “David” with a hammer in 1991 explained that he was “jealous of Michelangelo.” Whoever stuck a hat pin into the pupils of Durer’s “Self Portrait” in Munich in 1905 presumably didn’t like the way it was looking at her (the culprit wasn’t apprehended).

    The most common reason why people attack famous works of art, perhaps, is that it’s a guaranteed way of attracting attention. Before slashing Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” in 1975, the assailant announced in advance that he was going to make newspaper headlines. And crazy though he undoubtedly was, he wasn’t wrong. That’s exactly what he did.


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