Famous acts of art vandalism

Madmen and politicians are threatening the world’s cultural legacy

The all-Instagram famous French artist JR, known for his large-scale prints of faces of locals on house facades all over the world, took the Louvre pyramid to the next level to celebrate Louvre’s 30th anniversary. For a brief moment in time the pyramid appeared to extend deep into a quarry of white rock. It took JR and his team of 400 volunteers five days to create the artwork, using a total of 2,000-odd pieces of paper. The installation quickly disintegrated. This wasn’t an act of vandalism, but a rather remarkable reminder of art’s fragility and the need to find new ways of preserving it for living artists and future generations.

There is a whole array of more scandalous acts of vandalism and we collected only some of them. Unfortunately, many of the works that were subjected to attacks could not be fully restored and will never be the same as they were before.

Do you know the story of Herostratus who set fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and burned it down? Surely you do. The temple was considered as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but back in the 4th century BC the Greek arsonist who was a slave or someone of low social status destroyed it out of desire to become famous. Since then the cases of artworks destruction and damaging, including great masterpieces, became a regular occurence. Sometimes perpetrators were driven by insanity and sometimes by political motives.

For many people it’s impossible to separate art and ideology. That’s why there were periods of organised art destruction in history. E.g., after the French Revolution such acts were motivated by anti-religious and anti-royalist ideas. The Bolsheviks driven by anticlericalism ruined icons and churches after the 1917 revolution. Many artworks were destroyed following the Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Modernist paintings were considered “degenerate” by the Nazis. Having an artistic background himself Hitler detested abstract painting. And, who knows, maybe he was even jealous about the success of modernist artists which was completely undeserved from his point of view?

We don’t always know much about the motivation of people who intend to ruin cultural values, all the more often they are madmen driven by some unusual ideas. Some of them were actually obsessed with damaging artworks like Hans-Joachim Bohlmann who attacked over 50 paintings by Lucas Cranach, Paul Klee, Rubens etc.


Rembrandt, Danaë (1636)

One of the most dramatic stories of vandalism is of Rembrandt’s «Danaë». On 15 June 1985 the 17th-century painting was attacked in the Hermitage Museum in Russia by a Lithuanian man Bronus Maigis, who was later found insane. He entered the museum, threw sulfuric acid on the canvas and then attacked it with a knife. The central part of the composition was destroyed. Maigis claimed that the act of vandalism was a protest against the policy of Soviet Union.

The restoration took almost 13 years. The damage was so large that repainting of all the damaged parts would mean that the painting was no longer the true Rembrandt. Restorers decided not to do the full restoration.

Today the canvas is protected with an armoured glass, but we no more have «Danaë» as it has been once painted.


Claude Monet, The Argenteuil Bridge (1874)

The Impressionist landscape was attacked in the National Gallery of Ireland in 2007 by a man named Andrew Shannon. He has hit the canvas with his fist several times. At the trial he said that he had had a fainting spell, but this didn’t save him from prison.

It took 18 months to restore the painting which had a 4 inch hole in its centre.

What is curious, Claude Monet himself acted like a vandal towards his works. In 1908 he destroyed his own paintings with a knife and a paintbrush because he was not satisfied with what had been done.


Picasso, Woman in a red armchair (1929)

The Picasso’s painting «Woman in a Red Armchair» was vandalised in 2012 at Houston’s Menil Collection by a man whose name is Uriel Landeros with a can of spray paint. He painted a bull, a matador killing the bull and wrote «conquista» with black spray paint over the work. Someone made a video on his cell phone, and uploaded it to the YouTube. Landeros has surrendered voluntarily describing what he had done as an «act of political disobedience».

The restorers succeeded to save the picture and to remove all the traces of the spray paint from the canvas.


Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1517)


Da Vinci’s most famous painting was damaged several times. In December 1956, a Bolivian man Ugo Ungaza Villegas threw a stone at it out of unexplainable rage. The traces of this act of vandalism could be still seen. There is a little stain near the Mona Lisa’s left elbow.

In 1974, a woman sprayed red paint at the artwork while it was at the exhibition in the Tokyo National Museum. She explained her move as a gesture of protest against the Museum’s policy towards disabled people.

In 2009 it was threatened again when a Russian woman threw a ceramic mug at the painting. She was upset by her failure to obtain French nationality.


Diego Velazquez, The Toilet of Venus/Rokeby Venus (1650)

In 1914 a suffragist Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery in London and attacked the painting by Diego Velazquez  with a meat cleaver, she stabbed the canvas seven times. The «Slasher Mary», as the press dubbed her, was protesting the arrest of a fellow suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst.

«I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history», – explained her actions Mary Richardson. She added that she was also insulted by «the way men visitors gaped at it all day long».

Fortunately, restorers succeeded to fully restore the canvas.


The Fountain, Marcel Duchamp (1917)

The famous ready-made sculpture has been vandalised several times by the artists who wanted to «engage in dialogue» with Marcel Duchamp.

South African artist Kendell Geers urinated into the work while it was on display in Venice in 1993. French artist Pierre Pinoncelli urinated into the sculpture while it was on display in Nimes, France in 1993.

Swedish artist Björn Kjelltoft urinated into the work while it was on diplay in Stockholm in 1999.

Musician Brian Eno urinated into the work, while it was on display at the MOMA in 1995. He described the act later in his book «A Year With Swollen Appendices».

Chinese performance art duo Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi urinated on the work while it was on display in London in 2000. Chai said, “The urinal is there – it’s an invitation. As Duchamp said himself, it’s the artist’s choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it.”