Masked Men, Hatchets, and Bombs: Frank Oriti’s Clarity, Rodin’s the Thinker, and the Silencing of Art Vandalism
It all started on Twitter, of course. A disturbed visitor to a London museum wrote: “I hope the @metpoliceuk deal with the masked balaclava ‘protestors’ in the national portrait gallery #London bloody terrifying :-(“.
This was posted moments after a disturbance on the afternoon of July 5, and the event was made even more unnerving by its proximity to the tenth anniversary of London’s deadly bombings of July 7, 2005. According to the Evening Standard, four masked men ran through the galleries causing panic, and tried to physically remove a painting from the wall. Assumed to be protestors of the corporate sponsorship of the exhibition, they were immediately apprehended. The article claimed that the targeted work was Clarity, a portrait by Cleveland artist Frank Oriti.
In the ensuing days, little to no information could be found regarding the incident, save a perfunctory statement on the National Portrait Gallery’s website assuring the public that “none of the its visitors or staff were physically harmed and nothing was stolen or vandalized.” Even the artist was left in the dark. Oriti was informed with little more than an assurance that his painting was not harmed. But who were they? Why did they choose Oriti’s painting? And more importantly, why do museums and cultural institutions seem so reluctant to comment on such events?
Certainly, museums are in a precarious position when it comes to assaults on their collections; it makes them appear vulnerable, and can hugely affect their relationship to donors, investors, funding organizations, and the public. And while it is a decidedly tricky thing to balance security and open access simultaneously, shouldn’t museums have an obligation to keep their visiting public informed? One would hope, but covering up or downplaying acts of vandalism at museums is certainly nothing new.
Hundreds of famous works have suffered damage at the hands of vandals, including many you may have seen yourself and never knew they were maimed. This is because the most common reaction to such events is to swiftly and quietly restore the damage, leaving the work just as it was without any hint of their illustrious history. For example, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch— in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been repeatedly assaulted, the worst damage occurring when it was slashed by a knife several times in 1975. In 1972, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a man climbed onto Michelangelo’s Pieta, wielding a hammer. After fifteen blows, Mary’s arm was knocked off and her face was considerably damaged. In 1991, at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Michelangelo’s David was also attacked with a hammer. The assailant shattered the statue’s big toe before he was pulled off the pedestal by stunned visitors. In a Zurich museum in 1985 someone actually set a Rubens painting on fire (destroying it), and in 1987 a man carried a sawed-off shotgun into London’s National Gallery, shooting a da Vinci drawing at close range. But perhaps the most attacked work of art in the Western world–and now its most protected–is the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci’s small canvas was stolen off the wall, recovered, then had a large rock hurled at it, acid poured over it, was spray-painted red, and most recently suffered a blow at the hands of a disgruntled tourist. The woman lobbed a coffee mug (with the Mona Lisa on it, of course) purchased just moments before at the Louvre’s gift shop. Luckily, it shattered on the painting’s state-of-art bulletproof glass enclosure.
Perhaps these acts were committed for various reasons as diverse as the people who carried them out, but what they all share is the museum’s response. In each case, the institution immediately began restoration with as little fanfare as possible. To this day it is difficult to research exactly how the museums in question responded to these events, as there is so little public information available.
The close-lipped reaction to acts of vandalism by museums has been routine since the beginning of the twentieth century, when militant suffragettes staged a series of attacks at several locations across London and throughout England. The most famous of these incidents occurred in 1913, when Mary Richardson strode into London’s National Gallery concealing a hatchet under her skirt. Her target was the famous Rokeby Venus by Velasquez (so-named for its original owner), a lounging, highly idealized, full-length female nude. She approached the colossal canvas and proceeded to shatter the glass, chopping and slicing the painting with her hatchet before she was restrained and arrested. This was only one of several violent assaults aimed at works of art by suffragettes, who had taken to rather extreme measures to gain voting rights. The actions of these women caused many museums in London to preemptively close their doors in 1913, fearing more incidents. When they reopened, the issue was curiously no longer discussed, at least not publicly. Helen Scott, a scholar of art vandalism, could not find any trace or comment made by the museum after the official statements were given in 1913.
It’s a silence that continues today. In 2003 a Women’s Library at a London University tried to loan photographs taken of the Rokeby Venus in its damaged state for an exhibition, but Scott writes that their request was denied. The National Gallery said they could not release the pictures due to a “longstanding gallery policy” prohibiting such material to be publicly shown (undoubtedly worried about copycats or that the exhibition would glorify the suffragette’s actions). But this policy has in effect expunged an important part of this painting’s story. Indeed, standing in the gallery looking at the fully restored Rokeby Venus today, one would never imagine it had such a dramatic history.
Scott’s dissertation methodically categorizes and documents 250 case studies of violent incidents in museums. Interestingly, the scholar found only one example of an institution that purposefully decided to leave the damage intact. This rare example just happens to be right here in Cleveland. Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker was bombed by unknown assailants in 1970, dislodging the statue from its plinth, leaving the sculpture’s base ripped and warped. Because the bombing took place during a time of frequent Vietnam War protests, investigators suspected a radical group, such as the Weather Underground. But none claimed responsibility.
In what can only be considered an extremely forward-thinking and brave move, then-Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Sherman Lee, made the decision not to repair the statue. Less than a month after the incident, he said, “No one can pass the shattered green man without asking himself what it tells us about the violent climate of the USA in the year 1970. It is more than just a work of art now.”
Thanks to Lee and the staff of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the story of what happened to Rodin’s sculpture is fairly well known, and is now the subject of a new multi-media installation by prominent Israeli artist Nevet Yitzhak. Off the Ruling Class is a two-channel video installation currently on view at MOCA Cleveland. Yitzhak found herself drawn to the statue’s story while visiting Cleveland in the planning stages of her commission.
Poring over documents in the museum’s archive, Yitzhak found the materials for one part of her lovingly crafted video–a compendium of historical documents, photographs, and film of conservators carefully washing the statue during a recent cleaning. Watching her piece feels a bit like reading a love letter, the romance sustained by the seductive music of Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata, and the intimacy in the loving gestures of the (all female) conservators. Their hands move slowly, in an almost sensual manner, softly caressing every inch of the statue’s “body”.
In the other channel, Rodin’s Thinker comes to life in striking 3-D animation, sadly moping and shifting, lethargically watching his own story on the opposing wall. His weariness is in striking contrast to the beautiful tones of the other channel, but this Thinker is much closer to Rodin’s original conception: The Thinker is thought to be a portrait of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, helplessly looking downward into the circles of hell, unable to stop the endless suffering unfolding below him.
The juxtaposition of violence and beauty is a hallmark of Yitzhak’s work. In a recent exhibition, Yitzhak projected animated Afghan rugs onto the walls of a gallery. Upon closer inspection, their intricate designs and patterns are not made up of traditional floral and fauna, but rather tanks, fighter jets, and helicopters. Yitzhak has a cunning way of revealing unexpected truths, and Off the Ruling Class is no exception. By animating The Thinker, Yitzhak directly confronts the violence of the bombing. In his broken state, The Thinker sadly echoes the immense and disturbing loss of life during the Vietnam War. Yitzhak sees a direct parallel between the statue and wounded Vietnam veterans: “You think about the visuals of soldiers coming back, many without limbs. It’s kind of ironic that that happened to The Thinker too”.
While the Cleveland Museum of Art should certainly be lauded for openness in dealing with the criminal act, the title of Yitzhak’s work points to a small detail that might have been hidden from public view. Working in the museum’s archive, Yitzhak and Curator Rose Bouthillier discovered an anonymously written list on lined yellow paper titled: “Items of Importance Surrounding Destruction”. Detailing the damage to nearby windows, marble columns, and stairs, the list ends with: “Discovery of lettering on right side of pedestal facing the Museum South Entrance – four lines of lettering: Off / The / Ruling / Class”.
And while this seems like fairly convincing proof that the attackers left their mark, Yitzhak and Bouthillier were unable to locate any photographs with the graffiti present. Nevertheless, Yitzhak was greatly inspired by the words, and decided to use them as the title of her work, explaining “it’s a small detail that is minimized in the records. Perhaps that was done deliberately…” Were these words purposefully hidden from the public? It does seem odd that it took 45 years and an inquisitive artist to discover them. But why hide the words? Are they so inflammatory that knowledge of them would incite others to action?
Perhaps this is the reason that the officials at the National Portrait Gallery in London were unwilling to give credit to the masked men that supposedly tried to steal Oriti’s painting. By naming them, or discussing them, does one validate their destructive behavior?
It required some serious digging and email exchanges with the National Portrait Gallery to finally discover who was responsible. The incident had nothing to do with BP protests after all, but rather was staged by a well-known group of pranksters who collectively call themselves Trollstation. Known across London for their hidden camera pranks, the group posts their exploits on YouTube. Oriti has seen the video of the incident, but was confused: “You can see these ‘pranksters’ are taking paintings that they themselves brought in to the space and [are] pretending to take those off the wall. So I’m not even sure if they were near my painting. That’s what was so strange about all the news stories that covered the incident.”
So if it was a mock art heist committed by internet pranksters, why did so many media outlets connect the incident to Oriti’s painting? It did seem strange that they would have been able to run all the way to the very back of the museum where Oriti’s painting was displayed. Were they even in that room? And if not, who decided to connect the incident with Oriti’s painting? Will we ever discover the real truth of what happened that day? As links to the story on the internet are slowly cached and archived, it quietly slips farther and farther away, sinking deeper into digital oblivion. I find it fascinating that while most acts of art vandalism start loudly with a bang, crash, or scream, in the end, the silence is deafening.
Frank Oriti’s painting Clarity was one of 55 portraits chosen from nearly 2,800 submitted for the prestigious BP Portrait Award Exhibition. He is represented by Bonfoey Gallery, Cleveland, and is currently hard at work in his studio at 78th Street Studios.
Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker can be visited outside the South Entrance of the Cleveland Museum of Art, on the steps of the 1916 Building facing the lagoon.
Nevet Yitzhak: Off the Ruling Class was organized by Rose Bouthillier, Associate Curator, and is on view in the Gund Commons at MOCA Cleveland until January 10, 2016.