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  • Writer's pictureVishakha

Iconic Artworks That Became the Victims of Art Vandalism

Updated: Jun 10

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What is the greatest nightmare for any art lover?

Ask them and they would most likely say a damaged piece of art. Add an act of art vandalism to it and it will become an incident of utter blasphemy for them. 

An image showing art vandalism of a sculpture

If you are wondering about the possible reasons that make people attack artworks, there are many. From political causes to deemed social injustice, visa denial and even mental health are some of them. 

Now brace yourself to discover some of the most beloved artworks that failed to escape the wrath of its onlookers. 

1. Multiple Attacks on the Mona Lisa 

Mona Lisa became a victim of art vandalism multiple times

Mona Lisa is one of the most expensive paintings in the world and also probably one of the most attacked. Hence the first place in the listicle! While sitting for the portrait, poor Lisa Giocondo would have never thought what it would go through in the future. If you look closely, her left arm looks distorted: courtesy of vandalism.

It all started in 1956 with two art vandalisms in the same year.  The first was when a visitor tried to damage it using a razor blade. It was followed by a man named Hugo Unzaga Villegas who decided to hurl a rock at it, a few months later. He was visiting the Louvre with a rock in his pocket and acted on a whim.

The painting was attacked yet again when it was on a trip to Tokyo. The crowd control measures for visitors of the painting at the National Museum didn’t sit right with disability activists. Hence, a woman named Tomoko Yonezu attempted to spray paint the Mona Lisa in her attempt to protest. The few drops of paint were immediately removed from the painting and the woman was arrested and fined. However, her action forced the museum to set a day aside for disabled visitors to see the painting.

Post the incident in Tokyo, the painting was put behind a bulletproof glass when it returned to the Louvre. Since then, the glass case has prevented it from attacks of tomato soup, a coffee mug, and even cake icing.

2. Soup Splash on Sunflowers

Sunflower painting by Vincent Van Gogh in National Gallery, London suffered from art  vandalism

Some people have strange ways of raising awareness and one of the Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh became its victim. In 2022, two women with “JUST STOP OIL” written on their t-shirts threw tomato soup over this Van Gogh masterpiece. The incident took place at the National Gallery in London. The two women glued themselves to the wall after the art vandalism and started talking about rising fuel prices. 

While the action felt bizarre and unnecessary to many, the painting is intact because it was enclosed in glass. The frame suffered minor damage and was immediately taken care of. The women, on the other hand, were arrested for criminal charges.

The protest was a part of the same movement where an attacker smeared cake on the Mona Lisa. Different climate activists at this time were protesting across Germany, Italy, and the UK in a similar manner. The motive is the same in all cases - to raise awareness about plant conservation. They said, “Art cannot exist on a destroyed planet.” 

3. Puking on Piet

Blue vomit on Composition in Red White and Blue | Art Vandalism

Another victim in this list of art vandalism is the famous abstract painter Piet Mondrian and his Composition in Red, White and Blue. It was executed in 2006 by a 22 year old Jubal Brown who threw up blue vomit on the painting. While you may think anyone can throw up accidentally, Brown did it deliberately. He had eaten blue gelatin and blue cake icing especially to defile the painting.

He was on a mission to defile three paintings with three primary colors by vomiting on them. When asked, he said he wanted to “destroy art, to liberate individuals and living creatures from its banal, oppressive representation." In simple words — he didn’t like these paintings. 

The first paint he vomited on was Raoul Dufy's Harbour at Le Havre in Ontario with red spew. The second was Piet at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Fortunately, he didn’t attack the third artwork, and his target was never disclosed. 

4. The “Lord” vs. the Night Watch

The Night Watch Severely Attacked | Art Vandalism

The Night Watch is the biggest painting by Rembrandt and it also faced one of the biggest damages perhaps. A man carrying a bread knife entered the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and sliced the painting. He hit the painting in several places and ripped more than 12 inches off it. Overall more than 7 feet of the painting was defaced with multiple knife slashes. 

When the guards held the assailant down, he said he was sent by “the Lord” to slice the painting. The painting was severely damaged. However, a painstaking restoration of more than four years showed its result, and it was brought back to its original form. However, this was not the first attack on the painting and definitely not the last. 

Another incident of knife attack had already taken place before this. A shoemaker decided to lash out at the painting with a knife as a protest to his lack of work. However, the varnish of the painting had saved it from any damage. 

Later on, in 1990, another case of art vandalism occurred when a man threw some unknown chemical on the painting. It was probably sulfuric acid but there is no solid proof. A swift response from the museum guard saved it from seeping past the veneer, thus saving the painting.

5. “Reincarnated Jesus” and La Pietà

La Pietà attacked by a hammer | Art Vandalism

Imagine Jesus Christ hitting a sculpture depicting himself and the Virgin Mary! This is what happened to the famous sculpture of Michelangelo — La Pietà when a man claiming to be “Jesus” decided to attack it.

The said man was a geologist named Laszlo Toth who vandalized La Pietà. He entered St. Peter’s Basilica with a hammer and hit the statue all while screaming: “I am Jesus Christ – risen from the dead.”

The incident took place in 1972 and knocked Madonna’s nose into three fragments and left behind several indents. It took 10 months of intense work to restore the sculpture to its original form. It was then put behind a bulletproof glass to prevent any further vandalism. Laszlo Toth was deemed mentally unfit and was admitted to a mental hospital. He stayed there for two years before his deportation to Australia.

6. Destruction of Danaë 

Danae | Art Vandalism

This is probably one of the worst cases of attacked art that almost ruined a painting beyond restoration. This Rembrandt’s masterpiece was severely damaged in an attack at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

A man named Bronius Maigys threw sulfuric acid on the painting and then drove a knife through it, twice. The acid caused severe damage to the painting, especially the hair, face, right arm, and legs of Danaë. It left stains of dripping paint and splashes in the remaining areas. 

It took 12 long years to finally restore the painting. Even then it could never fully be brought back to its original form. The culprit was judged to be insane and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for six years. 

7. Ducham’s Urinal Put to Use

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp | Art Vandalism

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is said to be one of his best and most controversial works. It is a urinal that caused a huge controversy when it was first brought forward to the directors of the Society of Independent Arts. However, it caused an even bigger stir when two artists actually attempted to use the urinal.

While one of them was found out much later, the other was by a French performance artist Pierre Pinoncelli. He urinated in it in 1993 when the Fountain was loaned out for a brief visit to Nimes, France. However, he didn’t stop just there and went so far as to vandalize it with a hammer. 

The action led him behind bars for a month and he was also fined. However, he attempted it yet again in 2006 in Paris where it was a part of a Dada survey. This time he was fined a whopping $200,000 as the urinal had chipped and had to be restored. Meanwhile, Pinoncelli kept claiming it was not art vandalism, but performance art. 

Does Art Vandalism Really Prove Any Point?

Over the years, there have been numerous incidents of art vandalism. While some of the artworks have been restored to their original form, some went beyond repair. Nonetheless, with every restoration an attacked artwork loses the true essence of its original creator bit by bit. 

In most of these vandalisms, the attackers are often diagnosed with mental disorders. Whereas,  many of them are just perpetual offenders. However, irrespective of their reasons or motivations, art vandalism is never the correct approach. While it may cause some uproar,  the repeated attacks have proved that they mostly fail to prove any point. Moreover, there are always much better ways to raise awareness than damaging these symbols of ultimate skills and artistry.

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