Caught in the act of art vandalism

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The latest news in the art world is that the Isleworth Mona Lisa is now considered genuine, and not a fake. Named after a London suburb, where it was kept by a British art connoisseur about 90 years ago, its appearance after hibernation has probably been quite disturbing for the Louvre, where Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has been housed for three centuries and is the Museum’s biggest crowd puller. Reports say, it has now more or less been proven that Da Vinci did indeed create the other unfinished version many years earlier than the one at the Louvre, since it depicts a much younger Mona Lisa.

Another artwork which has been in the news is Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, which was vandalised about a week ago. Considered the ‘star exhibit’ in a recently opened subsidiary of the Louvre, a female visitor wrote ‘AE911’ on the right-hand corner of the painting with a black marker pen. Fortunately, the painting was not seriously damaged and a conservation expert was able to remove the writing without much trouble. The painting which portrays a bare-breasted woman at the head of a revolutionary charge, is now back in its original location.

This brings us back to the subject of security at museums across the globe. Museum authorities spend a major part of their funds in training personnel to be alert and vigilant in ensuring the safety of the precious works of art housed in their premises. The Louvre’s Mona Lisa, among the best-protected works of art in the world, has also faced many attacks of vandalism. Now encased in a bulletproof glass (a gift from Japan), it has had acid thrown at it followed by a rock thrown at it a few months later, then sprayed with red paint while on loan to the Tokyo National Museum and, most recently, faced the onslaught of a ceramic cup (bought at the Louvre’s gift shop) by a visitor. Fortunately, Da Vinci’s masterpiece has miraculously suffered no damage.

The ‘act of art vandalism’ is said to date back to 455 AD, when the Vandals invaded Rome, destroyed numerous artworks, and became forever associated with the willful defacement of art. Among other famous works of art that have suffered such vandalism is Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642) at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which has been vandalised on three occasions. The first attempt was in 1911, when a former Navy chef attacked the piece with a knife, but failed to cut through the thick varnish. In 1975, the painting was repeatedly slashed by an unemployed school teacher. Though restored, traces of the cuts still remain. The third attempt was in 1990 when an escaped psychiatric patient sprayed sulphuric acid on the painting. This time only the varnish was damaged after guards quickly diluted the acid with water.

The famous Rokeby Venus by Velazquez, that dates back to 1615, located at the National Gallery in London, was attacked with a meat cleaver in 1914 by suffragette Mary Richardson, who is said to have slashed it seven times. Thankfully, it was successfully repaired by the gallery’s chief restorer.

Even contemporary art has not been safe from vandalism. Last summer, an unknown person spray-painted the skirt of Damien Hirst’s 22ft high statue Charity, displayed on a balcony at the Royal West of England Academy of Art. The 3.5-tonne, piece was based on the collection box girl with teddy bear and leg in callipers image used by the disability charity, formerly known as The Spastics Society. More recently, one of Mark Rothko’s priceless murals (1958) located at London’s Tate Modern, was vandalised by a 26-year-old Polish national. News reports describe a man in his late 20s walking calmly up to the artwork titled Black on Maroon, to scrawl a graffiti message in black on the painting. The painting is one of a series, known as the Seagram murals, gifted to the Tate by the artist in 1969.

(The writer is a winner of many advertising

design awards and a painter of repute)

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