Saturday, June 21, 2008


In 1985, Rembrandt's "Danae"-- surely one of the most beautiful paintings in the history of the world-- was attacked by a man who slashed the painting with a knife, then doused it with sulfuric acid.

As the New York Times reported, the acid turned Rembrandt's lovely colors into a "dark, bubbling, foul-smelling mass that trickled down to the bottom of the the frame and from there onto the floor."

In 1972, an unemployed geologist attacked Michelangelo's Pieta with a hammer, crying, "I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead!" He knocked off the Virgin's arm at the elbow, broke off a chunk of her nose, and chipped her face.

Then there was the man who walked into an Amsterdam museum and repeatedly slashed a masterpiece by the painter Barnett Newman. The man spent 5 months in jail for his crime, then returned to the same museum and slashed another painting by the same artist worth about $12 million.

And let's not forget the time in 1975, when a former mental patient claimed that he had been ordered by God to attack Rembrandt's magnificent "Night Watch."

He slashed and hacked the 14-by-11 foot painting more than a dozen times, tearing out a chunk of canvas over a foot long.

It is hard to explain such savage attacks on beautiful objects. If you have trouble putting yourself in the mind of someone who behaves that way, you should be very glad. The people who do such things lead hellish lives untouched by beauty or pity.

But before you get too comfortable on the "sane" side of the dividing line, consider this: in 1715, the town fathers of Amsterdam decided to install that very same painting, Rembrandt's Night Watch, in their Town Hall. They picked the perfect spot between two columns. Unfortunately the painting was too large so they cut off sections of the painting on all four sides, to make it fit. They removed two figures on the left side of the painting as well as the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step. This was not the spontaneous outburst of a lunatic, this was a bunch of civil servants acting with the best intentions. There is no record that the town officials were ever confined to a mental institution. But again-- if you have trouble putting yourself in the mind of someone who behaves that way, you should be glad.

The Buddhas of Bamyan were two monumental statues of Buddha carved into the face of a cliff in Afghanistan nearly 2,000 years ago. The statues were immense-- almost 180 feet high.

In 2000, the Afghan government (at that time, led by Supreme Commander of the Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar) ordered that these ancient treasures be destroyed to avoid idol worship. Again, this was no impetuous act. It was calmly discussed by a number of government officials who, in the end, systematically dynamited these masterpieces. Taliban Minister of Information and Culture Qudratullah Jamal issued bland progress reports to the press: "The work started about five hours ago but I do not know how much of [the Buddhas] has been destroyed." Is there a lunatic out there who can match the work of bureaucrats steadily going about their business?

Finally. we come to the case of the Lascaux cave, probably the single greatest treasure trove of paleolithic art on the face of the earth.

Lascaux contains about 600 paintings and 1,500 drawings that have survived for approximately 17,000 years. Since the cave was discovered in 1940, thousands of people from around the world have been awed by its beauty.

In 1999, the French bureaucrats who administer the cave decided to install a new air conditioning system. By most accounts, it was a disaster. They selected a local contractor with no experience with caves. The workers were left unsupervised and ignored the pleas of the curators, tracking pollen in and out of the cave, leaving the door open, and piling up construction waste on the site. As Archaeology Magazine reported:
It is hardly surprising that by 2000, as soon as the work was completed... biological pollution appeared. Within a month a fungus, fusarium solani, characterized by white filaments, was growing on the cave walls.... Powdered quicklime was scattered on the floor to sterilize the cave, but this raised the temperature, further destabilizing the interior climate.... The new installation involved removing the roof from the chamber at the cave entrance.... exposing the cave to the impact of outside temperature variations. Consequently, water runs down the cave walls (and paintings) at times, followed by periods of extreme dryness.
If the French officials had been willing to admit their mistake, perhaps more could have been done to protect the art. However, as conditions in the cave deteriorated, the squabbling bureaucrats covered up their problems, barring scientific experts and cultural observers from inspecting the problem. Time magazine reported with frustration, "Nobody claims authorship of the decision to install the new machine."

Spores growing on prehistoric painting

The deplorable conditions at Lascaux were brought to the attention of the world by a valiant and determined woman named Laurence Beasley, who founded the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux. She refused to be intimidated by the bureaucrats, and went all the way to UNESCO for help in rescuing the cave. As Archaeology Magazine reported,

In spite of the authorities' reluctance to admit their responsibility for today's crisis, and the way they have downplayed the seriousness of Lascaux's position, the ICPL has succeeded in exposing the cave's dire condition and alerting the public.... A spokesperson for the ministry of culture has repeatedly denied that there is damage to, or fungi on, the paintings, despite clear photographic and eyewitness evidence. At one point the ministry of culture claimed the fungi have "disappeared naturally," yet restorers were still working in the caves three days a week, manually removing the fungi by their roots-- extractions that have left dark marks and circles on the paintings. Clearly the public has not been told the truth.
I commend to you the important work of Laurence and her nonprofit organization. Visit her web site. Read about Lascaux and sign her petition. Make a contribution if you feel like it. (Full disclosure: as a lawyer, I do pro bono work for the ICPL because I believe in their cause but as always, I am solely responsible for the opinions on this blog.)

Gentle and beautiful objects have many natural enemies in this world. I don't know whether the greater threat to art comes from lunatics with knives and acid, or from cold bureaucrats and civil servants protecting their turf and hiding their incompetence.


Anonymous said...

sort of like the difference between mass murderers and certain presidents of late. is there any (difference)?

the lunatics are the most intriguing aspect of the blog to me; as it seems there is a deep suffering in the act... some disturbing, unidentified link between madness and genius. i feel especially sorry for Rembrandt.

but the beauracrats are simply arrogant and ignorant and haven't the souls to understand their own stupidity.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that part of the reason great works of art are attacked is because they are anything but "gentle." As much as we lament the malice and madness of the vandals, somewhere in the mix, these monsters recognize the power of the artwork, and this is what they are trying to neutralize. For those who wish the world were different, the power of artworks to shape our imaginations may be intolerable.

Always enjoy your posts. Thanks.

David Apatoff said...

Sarah, thanks for your comments. I am certainly intrigued by the lunatics too, as you can probably tell, but there is something about the bureaucrats that makes my blood run cold. I believe it was Hannah Arendt who coined the phrase, "the banality of evil." Truly monstrous things can be done as a result of office procedures and administrative protocol.

Matthew Adams said...

Hmmm... Maybe I am alone in this, but I suspect our western attitude to art has changed (maybe since the Nazi's) and now we tend to view all art as sacred and therefore it is intolorable and even blasphemous to destroy art in any way. I suspect that this attitude hasn't always existed, not even among artists, except a few artists who only thought that their own work was sacred. While I don't condone the destruction of art, and would think the loss of historical artworks such as mentioned in your post as a great loss, I wonder if art would be better served if it was removed from it's idolic pedistal and not worshipped, but seen as something we do everday, as normal a s breathing?

I don't know if that made any sense...

Stan Shaw said...

They all sound like the kind of clients today's illustrators run into.

Megan Coyle said...

Wow, it's crazy the reasons that some people have behind why they intentionally damage artwork.

Causita said...

El arte amtiguo es impresionante

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, despite the delicacy and stillness of some of these works, you are surely correct that they still have great power. I sometimes think the bureaucrats are tone deaf to that power. As for the lunatics... it's hard to say whether and how they feel that power.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew, for me it's a matter of simple math. As long as the number of people who can paint like rembrandt are outnumbered by the jerks who know how to cut with a knife, the laws of supply and demand suggest that artwork will always be valued.

Stan, sounds like you have run into a few. I know what you mean. I have too.

Gaz said...

Death by a thousand cuts or death by a single cut, that seems to be the difference between the two types of monsters......

Wendy said...

The Beauracrats are a far worse threat than the lunatics. Not only are there millions more Beauracrats than lunatics but there also really is no idea too assinine, no corner too gentle to be cut and the more of them that you put together the more difficult it is for them to put 'fore' and 'sight' together in a meaningful way.

Carol said...

Totally mystifying isn't it, an absolute sin to destroy these beautiful things. I heard one time, that the reason people do something awful is that "hurting people hurt". I think that is true, the pain they feel, they want inflected someplace else.

Christian Alzmann said...

Great article. Thanks for all of the info.

Media Maven said...

Thanks for this piece. Great, albeit sad, information.

I wanted to add that there is also the greater group of lunatics that comes with warfare and the ensuing loss of great artifacts and artwork throughout history. Nicolas Roerich, the world's great stage designer and painter (the original "Rite of Spring") created a flag comprised of 3 red circles that is to be flown over cultural treasures in the hope that they will be recognized and won't be destroyed. I wonder today if those flags are still in place.

Keep up the good work you do for the foundation!

LOOKA said...

Sort of the same sort of the pain!

I can't believe it! All this in such compressed form...

People are sure weird and sad, thinking a god is there to tell them to hurt the inner expressions of others (that being the artworks). If they would really be interested in religion and practicing it they would never come to such conclusions.

Someone said this and it fits those cultural criminals: "Going to church doesn't make you a christian in the same way that going to a garage makes you a mechanic."

David Apatoff said...

Gaz, you are right-- they are different species of monsters.

DeWolfe, it sounds like you have had some first hand experience with bureaucrats.

Work of Art, a philosopher once said that "to understand everything is to forgive everything." I've spent some time struggling with that notion.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Christian and Media. Media, I had not heard of those flags before, thanks for the tip. In this day and age, I wonder if warriors wouldn't treat those flags as bulls eyes, rather than havens.

Looka, unfortunately the list goes on and on. These are just a few recent examples. And we haven't even begun to touch upon the bureaucrats who deliberately destroy an enemy's works of art during a war. These examples are only civil servants calmly going about their job!