We all know that art is fragile. It’s very easy to damage, and if you look after it poorly, you can end up with a masterpiece that looks like something a toddler went to work on with crayons. But we tend not to think about how this fragility has led to an entire branch of science: conservation.
I was looking at Wikipedia’s list of living Masters in Conservation, the people who look after our most valuable artworks. The list is full of names I’d never heard of. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that in your life you’ve met more practicing airline pilots than practicing conservators. Conservators aren’t artists, they’re scientists – and their job is as much about preventing damage as it is about repairing it.
The history of paintings and vandalism isn’t just about paintings, though it certainly includes that; it’s also about the development of conservation science. We don’t have any idea what the Venus of Willendorf looked like when it was first made; we can only guess at its original appearance from later copies or from the other figurines made by the same artist. But what happened once humans started living in cities and achieving some level of prosperity? All this new wealth had to be protected: so we get
The word ‘vandalism’ was coined in 1794, when the French army was fighting in present-day Germany. Soldiers from the Rhine region were called ‘Vandals’ for destroying art and buildings during their invasion of Rome about a thousand years earlier.
Towards the end of the 19th century, numerous paintings were being vandalised across Europe. Today, it is difficult to imagine how this could have happened but over a period of time, it became so common that people began to associate it with modernity. If a town wanted to show its love for something, or protest against something else, they would vandalise works of art. The first painting to be painted on was Munch’s The Scream in Oslo in 1895. It was painted green because it was thought to represent madness and evil.
The movement peaked around 1910 when many valuable paintings were destroyed or defaced by vandals. Between April 1911 and March 1912 alone, over 1,000 paintings were vandalised in Berlin alone!
It is well known that there is a direct connection between the number of visitors to an art museum and the number of paintings on the wall. A more general statement is that the amount of damage suffered by an art museum depends on the size of the museum divided by the average number of visitors. For example, a museum that receives 70 visitors per day will suffer no damage if it has 100 paintings on display, but will suffer considerable damage if it has 1 painting on display. The same principle applies to other forms of vandalism: if your town has 10,000 people and one church, you can expect about one act of vandalism per week. If your town has 10 churches and one person, you will suffer one act of vandalism every ten years.
The connection between art and vandalism was first pointed out by Leon Walras in his 1838 paper “On the Vandalism in Art Museums.” However his paper was ignored at the time (it received only 1 citation) and rediscovered only in 2009 when it was featured as a blog post on Slashdot.
The paper attracted much attention after it was featured on Slashdot and currently (2018) receives over 2 million page views per year.
Early paintings were often votive paintings, made to petition the Gods or spirits for a specific favor, such as the birth of a child. In some cases, they were also used to cast spells against other people. Paintings have been found at archaeological sites that depict both events from the past and images from the mythology of the time. The figures in these paintings were often painted in profile, with large eyes and noses, for example, and some even had multiple sets of eyes to show the power and authority of the person depicted.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, painting underwent a transformation that was due in large part to Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). Giotto painted more natural looking figures and landscapes that had more depth. He also introduced spatial perspective which showed that objects appeared smaller as they neared the horizon line while those at eye level remained life sized. For example, his painting “The Last Supper” shows how Jesus would have stood while he was talking to his disciples at this event. Paintings became more detailed and realistic after Giotto’s innovations; however, they were still mainly religious paintings until later in history.
Many famous paintings by well-known artists came about as copies of earlier works. Artists would make new
The last time I visited the art museum in my city, I noticed that some of the paintings were vandalized. In particular, there was a painting by a famous artist that someone had taken a knife to it and cut off the face of the woman in it. I would have thought that this would be unacceptable behavior in an art museum, however much I dislike the painting, but apparently not. The museum has a policy of not trying to restore vandalized paintings. It is already difficult to restore a painting without changing its original appearance. If they did restore vandalized paintings, they’d be seen as encouraging vandalism, which would encourage even more vandalism.
The people who run art museums are very strange.* They think it is acceptable for someone to destroy another person’s work of art. They think this because they believe that what matters is not an object’s aesthetic value but its artistic value. But how do they define “artistic value”?”**
Art is the most valuable item we have. It is also the most fragile. The Louvre in Paris, home of the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, is listed as a historical monument. It has defenses against airplanes and missiles, but it can’t protect its collection from the people who walk through it every day. The world’s great museums are surrounded by high walls, but that doesn’t mean the art inside is safe.
When I was in grad school studying art history, my favorite professor told us a story about Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (c1633). When he was young, he said, he had gone to see this painting at the Louvre with his father. They were standing in front of it, admiring it — it really is an amazing painting — when some older man came up and kicked it. Not just once, either; first he looked at Rembrandt’s picture and then he turned around and kicked it again. My professor’s father dragged him away screaming — “I never saw anything so horrible! What sort of man was that?”
It turns out that kicking famous paintings has been popular for a long time (see: Michelangelo’s David). But in recent decades there has been an epidemic
The Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées is a large art museum. It has a main exhibition space, called the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume. The museum was built for the Universal Exposition of 1900 and served as the main venue for the 1924 Summer Olympics.
One of the most famous paintings in the world hangs in this museum, Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Completed in 1884, it is a pointillist masterpiece that is almost entirely composed of small dots of paint. The painting has been defaced many times since its display in 1885. In 1914 Henri-Georges Adam slashed Seurat’s painting with a razor blade, protesting against what he considered to be “Impressionism”, a bourgeois art form that was opposed to his Socialist ideals.
In 1919, an anti-war activist named Louis Lecoin threw a bottle of ink at the painting while screaming “Down with militarism!”. He was sentenced to six months in prison for vandalism and spent three months cleaning the painting as part of his punishment.
In 1972, French conceptual artist Daniel Buren decided to exhibit his work under Seurat’s masterpiece. He stencilled “Grand Palais” onto Se