Rembrandt's The Night Watch (1642) undergoing restoration February, 2020. (Photo by Erhan Demirtas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
On Art

An extreme form of criticism

Works by Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rodin, Rothko and Mondrian have all been vandalised for reasons of mental instability or political activism or both, informs Michael Prodger

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In late December 2019, a 20-year-old architecture student named Shakeel Ryan Massey entered Tate Modern and walked up to Bust of a Woman, a Picasso of 1944 showing his then lover Dora Maar.

According to the prosecutor at his ensuing trial, Massey, who had armed himself with metal padlocks and wrapped his hands in scarves, examined the painting for several minutes and then “dropped his coat on the floor and rushed towards the painting, punching the artwork and causing the protective glass to smash and ripping the painting in the middle”.

Art and attacks by individuals is an old story

He then tugged the picture from the wall and threw it to the floor. He told the security guard who tackled him that the attack was an art performance.

At his trial earlier this year, the judge was unimpressed by Massey’s reasoning: “There is nothing to suggest you were anything other than a 20-year-old seeking fame,” and handed down a sentence of 18 months. The painting, valued at £20 million, will cost an estimated £350,000 to repair.

Art and attacks by individuals is an old story. The term vandalisme was apparently first used in 1794 by the Bishop of Blois, Henri Grégoire, to describe the wholesale destruction of monuments during the French Revolution, and since then some of the world’s most celebrated artworks have drawn the attention of vandals determined, like Massey, to find their own moment of fame.

The Mona Lisa, for example, has been damaged three times since 1956: in that year it was doused in acid and later had a rock thrown at it, while in 1974 red paint was sprayed at it and in 2009 a mug bought from the Louvre’s giftshop was used as a projectile against it. The last two attempts were by a woman protesting at the lack of disabled access to the museum and a Russian woman who had been refused French citizenship.

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch suffered three twentieth-century attacks: a navy cook took a knife to it in 1911; in 1975 it received more extensive slashing damage in a second knife attack; while in 1990 it was sprayed with acid.

In 1987 a man protesting at the “political, social and economic conditions in Britain” went to the National Gallery and from a distance of seven feet blasted Leonardo’s drawing for The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist with a shotgun.

In 1974 an art dealer sprayed “kill lies all” on Picasso’s Guernica in protest at President Nixon offering a pardon to William Calley, the US army officer convicted of the My Lai massacre. Works by, among others, Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rodin, Malevich, Rothko, Lichtenstein and Mondrian have all attracted the attention of vandals motivated by mental instability or political activism or both.

Most attacks are one-offs but between 1977 and 2006, Hans-Joachim Bohlmann, a German with a long history of mental issues, made a career of attacking works of art. In all he damaged more than 50 paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Dürer, Cranach and Klee, as well as desecrating gravestones, cutting down some 600 trees, killing a bevy of swans, slashing lorry tyres and burning buildings. During the course of his 30-year spree he is estimated to have caused some €138 million of damage to works of art.

The personal tragedy was that Bohlmann knew he was ill. He was born in 1937 and would confess that from an early age “I was aware that I could never be the way I wanted to be.” He voluntarily underwent brutal corrective treatments: electro-shock therapy, insulin-induced comas, a lobotomy which left him further impaired, as well as tranquillisers and antidepressants. He tried and failed to hold down jobs as a plumber and warehouse assistant. The turning point came when his wife fell out of an open window while cleaning their apartment and died.

He later told an interviewer, “To me, my wife was the most expensive and dear thing, but to others a Rembrandt was the most expensive thing.” So he decided to destroy works of art: “I wanted to create a furore.” Two weeks after his wife’s death he took a syringe of sulphuric acid into a gallery in Hamburg and emptied it on to Paul Klee’s Goldfish. Next he set light to an altar in Lübeck cathedral and he was up and running. “The bigger the damage, the bigger the outcry, the more important I became. I didn’t even need antidepressants any more,” he said. The emotion he felt was “elation”.

Nor did he care about being caught, checking into hotels under his own name and not covering his face in his targeted galleries. When he was finally arrested he was sentenced to five years in prison. On his release he picked up where he had left off: more attacks and more prison sentences followed as well as a 15-year stay in a psychiatric hospital where, ironically, he painted some 1,500 abstract watercolours as part of an art therapy programme.

It didn’t work either and one night in 2006 he sneaked out of Hamburg — where he had been ordered to remain — and travelled to Amsterdam where he splashed a seventeenth-century painting in the Rijksmuseum with lighter fluid and set it aflame. It was to be his last attack. The rationale for all the damage he had wrought, he said, was that “within me is a psychological destruction worse than the destruction I have done to these paintings”. Bohlmann died of cancer in 2009, not long after leaving prison for the final time.

It is a terrible and tragic tale with no redeeming features and it will happen again, even if not on the same scale. The power of art, so frequently and so blithely invoked, has two sides.

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