intentional damage

Barnett Newman’s Slashed Paintings

Barnett Newman, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967-68

Barnett Newman, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967-68. Oil on canvas, 8′ x 18′

I’ve been reading this afternoon about three specific instances in which Barnett Newman paintings were slashed. The first instance of damage occurred in 1982, when a veterinary medical student attacked Barnett Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969-70, oil on canvas; 274 x 603 cm). The painting, which was on display at the Nationalgalerie Museum in Berlin, offended and frightened the student, who claimed that the painting was a “perversion of the German flag.”

The second and third incidents in which a Newman painting was damaged were performed by the same person, at the same museum! In March of 1986, Gerard Jan Van Bladeren walked into the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and used a box cutter to slash eight incisions into Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (shown above). Van Bladeren, a mentally-disturbed realist painter who rejected modern art (and wanted to make Newman’s painting serve as an example of his rejection), was arrested and served five months in jail.

However, Van Bladeren should have been watched more carefully: over ten years later, in 1997, he walked into the Stedelijk Museum again. Upset over the restoration of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, Van Bladeren decided to attack another painting by Newman, Cathedra (shown below). Van Bladeren used a small Stanley-brand knife to slash this painting seven times. Afterward, Van Bladeren calmly leaned against a wall and waited for the police to arrive!

Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951

Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951. Oil on canvas, 8′ x 18′

Such marks on Newman’s monochromatic surfaces are hard to hide, and pose a problem for conservators. In fact, when Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was not put public display until 2001, it was met a lot of criticism. The Stedelijk Museum was upset with the restoration of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, and some said that the painting lost its appeal due to the mishandling and misapplication of paint. When the Stedelijk Museum opened in a new location, the Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was put on display in the new building in 2014. The museum celebrated (and also justified) the return of this restored painting with this video:

The Stedelijk Museum decided to use their own in-house conservators to restore Cathedra, which arguably would have been an even more difficult project because of the varied layers of paint. This variation contributes to the ethereal nature of the painting, since the painting seems tangible and intangible at the same time. It seems like the museum is happy with their conservation efforts for Cathedra, since the painting is highlighted in the video above (and in fact, seems to get even more praise for its visual properties than Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III).

I think something very bold, powerful, and even ineffable is expressed by paintings by Newman, especially because they often appear on a large scale. The paintings overwhelm and fill the visual field of the viewer, and perhaps these factors contributed to how these vandals felt unsettled (and subsequently reacted to) Newman’s works of art. (It is interesting to me that the two Stedelijk paintings are the same size!) Perhaps Barnett Newman might even have been able to understand these attacks, since he wrote in 1943, “The painter is concerned . . . with the presentation into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent, his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life.” Perhaps these sublime “metaphysical secrets” are too unsettling for some people to have revealed, and they react in a violent way?


Book Review: “From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David”

Michelangelo, "David," 1501-1504. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Heil.

Michelangelo, “David,” 1501-1504. Marble, 17′ tall. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Heil

This summer I’ve found it more convenient to read eBooks for a variety of reasons, including convenience while I travel. I just finished reading a brand-new book From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David by A. Victor Coonin. I really enjoyed reading this book; it is written in a very engaging and approachable way. The book discusses the history of Michelangelo’s “David,” including the various locations where the sculpture either was intended to be placed or actually placed.

Additionally, the book discusses the famous sculpture’s impact on society and culture over the centuries. I especially liked the chapter which discussed the cultural impact which the David has had on artists, activist groups, and other types of people and communities. It was neat to read about ways in which the David has been recreated and also “cloned” in visual culture, including Banksy’s sculpture from the Banksy vs. the Bristol Museum exhibition in 2009.

I learned a lot of new things about Michelangelo’s “David” when reading this book. There are a lot of interesting tidbits and facts that have sparked my curiosity, and I intend to do a lot of follow-up research on the ideas that Coonin presented. For now, though, I want to highlight several things from this book that I found particularly interesting:

  • Before reading this book I knew that Michelangelo’s “David” originally was intended to adorn a spur above the tribune outside the Florence Cathedral, but I didn’t know that the original plan for the spurs included a whole sculptural program with twelve freestanding, life-sized figures of Old Testament prophets.1 (This is particularly interesting to me, given my own research on Aleijadinho’s twelve sculptures of Old Testament prophets outside Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos in Brazil.)
  • Four sculptures were created for the Florence Cathedral series of prophets before Michelangelo was born: Isaiah (1408) by Antonio and Nanni di Banco; David (1408-09) by Donatello; the gigantic multi-media sculpture Joshua (c. 1410) by Donatello; and a gigantic statue by Antonio di Duccio which probably depicted the prophet Daniel (1464-65). Donatello’s David sculpture may be lost, but some scholars think that it might be Donatello’s David in the Bargello Museum or perhaps another bearded prophet in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo collection.2  We We know Isaiah was placed a cathedral spur, but when Donatello’s David was completed, Isaiah was taken down and neither sculpture remained on the exterior. It could be that the life-size sculptures were too small to be seen when placed up high.
  • After Isaiah and Donatello’s David were made, an oversize sculpture (called the “giant” or “White Colossus”) of Joshua was made out of brick, clay and gesso (which was whitewashed to give the appearance of marble).3  This sculpture remained in place for several centuries, and we can get an idea of its original placement from a 17th century print by Israel Silvestre (see print detail). Several decades later, Agostino di Duccio created a similar giant (probably a figure of Daniel) out of terracotta in 1464-65 (which is now lost, but does appear on a view of the Cathedral printed in 1584).4
  • I knew that Michelangelo’s “David” was created from a discarded piece of marble (which was thought to be unable to be turned into a sculpture). However, before reading this book I didn’t know that the discarded marble actually was intended to be for the series of twelve Old Testament prophets, too. This marble was quarried in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio, and seems to have been roughly outlined into some anthropomorphic form before it ultimately was abandoned.5
  • In addition to the famous marble sculpture, Michelangelo also created a bronze David, but this sculpture was composed a bit differently. Although this sculpture no longer exists, we can get a semblance of Michelangelo’s working process for the sculpture from a study drawing. We also know more about the final appearance from a drawing of the sculpture by Rubens.
  • The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin really didn’t like Michelangelo’s David at all. He wrote, “What does Michelangelo put forth as his ideal of youthful beauty? A gigantic hobbledehoy, no longer a boy and not yet a man, at the age when the body stretches, which the size of the limbs does not appear to match the enormous hands and feet…Then we have the unpleasant attitude, hard and angular, and the hideous triangle between the legs. Not a single concession has been made to the line of beauty.”6
  • Michelangelo’s David was attacked in 1991 by Pietro Cannata, a mentally-instable visitor who came into the Galleria dell’Accademia. Cannata’s hammer (which had been hidden in his jacket) severed the second toe of the statue’s left foot.7
  • After New York City was attacked on September 11, 2001, the city of Florence offered to send a copy of the David to be placed at Ground Zero. This offer never materialized for some reason, but the gesture suggests how much the David has come to represent hope.8

My only main critique of this book is in the small size and low quality of the resolution for several of the images, which I realize may be an inevitable result of reading an eBook instead of a printed publication. Sometimes it was difficult to see what Coonin was trying to point out in the images because of their small size, and enlarging the images on my iPad made the pictures look very grainy and pixelated. But I did like that there were a lot of images and that they were in color. I assume (and would hope) that the images are more clear in the printed version of the text.

Overall, however, I highly recommend this book. From Marble to Flesh can appeal to all kinds of people, not just art historians. Coonin writes in an easy-to-read manner, but also takes time to define any art history term that is necessary for the reader to understand. I’m excited about all of the things that I learned in this book, and I think anyone interested in Renaissance art or cultural studies will be excited about this book, too.

Thank you to Alexandra Korey and The Florentine Press for providing a review copy of this book.

1 A. Victor Coonin, From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David (Florence: Florentine Press, 2014), 26, ePub for iBooks (vertical orientation).

2 Ibid., 34-37.

3 Ibid., 38.

4 Ibid., 48-49.

5 Ibid., p. 63.

6 Heinrich Wölfflin, The Art of the Italian Renaissance: A Handbook for Students and Travelers (New York and London: 1903), 54-56.

7 Coonin, 16.

8 Ibid., 320.


The Slashing of Velasquez’s “The Rokeby Venus”

Velasquez, "The Toilet of Venus" (also called "The Rokeby Venus), 1648. The National Gallery of Art, London. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Last week I met a feminist scholar who mentioned that she likes to show her students Velasquez’s “The Toilet of Venus” (commonly known as “The Rokeby Venus”) when she takes students to London on a study abroad program. This scholar teaches her students about the suffragette Mary Richardson, who slashed this canvas multiple times in 1914 in order to protest the recent arrest of suffragette leader Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst.

Detail of damage to "The Rokeby Venus." The attack by Mary Richardson occurred in the National Gallery 1914. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I recently watched a BBC documentary (from “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” series) that covered more details about this attack (beginning about 32:17 in the linked video). At the time, Mary Richardson did not mention that she was bothered by the painting itself. However, Richardson mentioned in 1952 that she was bothered by the subject matter of this painting (as a female nude which attracted the attention of male viewers); this sentiment appropriately encouraged the soon-to-be feminist movement to uphold this attack a symbols of feminist attitudes toward the female nude.1

I think that the image of the slash marks are particularly interesting, because they remind the viewer that the Venus is actually an illusion which is painted on a two-dimensional surface. It’s also interesting to see how the media responded to this attack, since they cast Mary Richardson as a murderer (referring to her as “Slasher Mary,” which is a charged term given that Jack the Ripper killings took place a few decades before). Since Venus was proven to be an illusion instead of an actual body, Richardson had essentially “killed” the Venus.2

It is also interesting that Richardson concentrated her attack on the body of the Venus figure itself, as if to prevent the back and buttocks from serving as palpable, believable fetishes for the male viewer. In its original (now restored) state, this painting is well-construed for fetishization: the back and buttocks are highlighted as objects, especially since the “subjecthood” or “personhood” of the female is lessened through the obscured face (which is not only turned from the viewer, but is represented in the mirror in a very blurry, undefined manner). Richardson’s marks, however, challenge and defy this fetishization.

Do you know of any other physical attacks on works of art by feminists? Do you have any other thoughts on what new meanings were created by Richardson’s slash marks?

1  In 1952, in an interview, Mary Richardson said, “I didn’t like the way men visitors gaped at the painting all day long.” This quote is mentioned in “The Rokeby Venus” episode from “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series, but also found at “Political Vandalism: Art and Gender” found here:

2 Laura Nead discusses how the media used words that seemed to suggest that wounds were inflicted on an actual body, instead of a pictorial representation of a female. See Lynda Nead, “The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality”. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 2.


Intentional Damage: The “Night Watch” and Temple of Artemis

I don’t like it when works of art get damaged (not by any means!), but I’m intrigued when such catastrophes occur. I’ve blogged about this topic before, discussing instances when Michelangelo’s Pietà and Malevich’s Suprematism (White on White Cross) were damaged by mentally-unstable individuals. (I’ve even decided to start an “intentional damage” label for these kinds of posts.)

I wanted to write about two works of art/architecture that have been intentionally damaged over time. The following two works of art may seem unrelated to most, but they are connected in my mind: I learned more about the damage done to these works during my recent trip to Europe. I had an extended layover in Amsterdam and got to visit the Rijksmuseum (where I saw Rembrandt’s The Night Watch) and finished my trip in Selçuk/Ephesus, where the Temple of Artemis is located.

Rembrandt, "Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq" (The Night Watch), 1642

When visiting the Rijksmuseum, I was reminded that “The Night Watch” was greatly damaged in 1975, when a mentally-unstable school teacher, Wilhelmus de Rijk, slashed the painting with a bread knife. You can see some of the initial damage in the following YouTube clip. Don’t those slashes just pull at your heart strings?

Although the 1975 incident is the most famous example of damage to Rembrandt’s masterpiece, there are actually a few other times in which the “Night Watch” has been attacked. An unemployed shoemaker slashed the painting during World War I, to protest his inability to find employment. (Which is so ridiculous! Who would want to hire someone who just slashed a priceless painting?)1 In April 1990, it was reported that a jobless Dutchman sprayed an unknown chemical substance (later determined to be acid) on the painting, but luckily the damage was minimal. (Note: The Rijksmuseum’s site also mentions that the painting was sprayed with acid in 1985, but I think that this date is actually referring to the 1990 event.)

Detail of "Night Watch" text label from Rijksmuseum, showing the area where evidence of the 1975 damage is still seen on the painting

The other intentionally-damaged art that I recently learned about is the Temple of Artemis, near Ephesus. Before my trip, I already knew that this structure (which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) is now a ruin (see below).2 However, I didn’t realize that this structure was burned in 359 BC, by an allegedly mentally-unstable person named Herostratos (also spelled Herostratus) who hoped to make his mark on history.3 Interestingly, this fire was also said to occur on the same night that Alexander the Great was born. Although there isn’t a way to verify that the fire took place on this exact date of July 20th or 26th (beyond what is mentioned in historical writings), archaeologists have noted that the some ruins from the site bear traces of fire.4

Herostratos was executed for his crime, and the Ephesians also created a decree to ban the mention of the Herostratos’s name. Obviously, the ban was not followed, since the story has been recorded by historians like Theopompos of Chios.

Parts of the ruined temple later were used to help build the nearby Basilica of Saint John. So, I guess, in some ways you can go and see some of the Temple of Artemis when you are in Selçuk, although the materials have been reconfigured to help form a different religious structure!

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (modern Selçuk), Turkey (begun 8th century BC)

In November 2011, plans were announced to build a $150 million reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis. I didn’t hear anything about this reconstruction while I was in Turkey, which makes me wonder if the project received funding. If the temple does get rebuilt, though, we’ll need to make sure that arsonists stay away!

Want to read about more damaged art? Artdaily has compiled a good list. Do you know of more examples of intentionally-damaged art? Does anyone have a thought as to why mentally-unstable people would be drawn to damage art (as opposed to something else)?

1 In many respects, Rembrandt’s painting is actually “priceless.” Although the members of the civic guard paid Rembrandt 1,600 guilders back in the 17th century, there is no other price attached to this piece. The museum does not insure the painting (it is in loan from the city of Amsterdam), in accordance with Culture Ministry policy.

2 Several temples were built on this site over time. A few reconstruction of the temple are found HERE and HERE.

3 Albert Borowitz, Terrorism for Self-Glorification: The Herostratos Syndrome (Kent State University Press, 2005), 4 – 19. Citation can be viewed online HERE. This citation also follows the historiography of a allegation that Herostratos burned the Temple of Artemis on the same night that Alexander the Great was born.

4 Ibid., p. 5. Citation can be viewed online HERE.


To Hack Off a Leg: Michelangelo’s Florence “Pietà”

Michelangelo, "Pietà," Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, c. 1547-1555

Several months ago I wrote a post on Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (also called the “Bandini Pietà” or “Duomo Pietà”). Back then, I promised to explore in a future post some of the reasons why Michelangelo might have mutilated this sculpture (which originally was intended for the artist’s own tomb). When I promised to write this post, I didn’t realize that I would be opening a big can of worms! I’ve spent several hours combing through a lot of research and ideas – and to tell the truth, I still haven’t completely formed an opinion about what I find the most compelling.

Although I wrote down a lot of information in a lengthier draft of this post, I’ve decided to condense a few thoughts here. (If you want to see more research or a semi-detailed historiography of mutilation research, contact me!)

Our good ol’ friend Vasari gives several contradictory suggestions for why the sculpture was mutilated: 1) the marble contained flaws; 2) the marble was too hard, and sparks would fly from the chisel; and 3) Michelangelo’s standards for the piece were too high, and he was never content with what he had completed. (This last suggestion seems like a musing on Vasari’s part.) Vasari also explains that Michelangelo was pressured to work on the piece: “It was because of the importunity of his servant Urbino who nagged at him daily that he should finish [the Pietá]; and that among other things a piece of the Virgin’s elbow got broken off, and that even before that he had come to hate it, and he had had many mishaps because of a vein in the stone; so that losing patience he broke it, and would have smashed it completely had not his servant Antonio asked that he give it to him just as it was.”1 In the end, Michelangelo lets his pupil, Tiberio Calcagni, restore the group. As we will see, the left leg may or may not have needed restoration before Calcagni got his hands on the sculpture.

Many scholars in the 20th century have interpreted this mutilation to include the removal of Christ’s left leg, which appears to have been created to hang across the thigh of the Virgin. (An eighteenth-century wax model of the sculpture gives in indication for how it may have originally appeared.) Some scholars, such as Henry Thode (1908), feel that the mutilation may have been done for compositional purposes; the sculpture might have appeared to unattractive and cluttered with the left leg.2

In 1968, Leo Steinberg wrote an interesting (and controversial) article about “the missing leg” of the Florence Pietà. Steinberg argues that the left leg originally existed and was slung over the Virgin’s thigh, as a solemn symbol of a sexual union (a motif that is found in later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art). Such a composition would have emphasized the symbolic and mystic marriage between the Virgin and Christ. However, it could be that the vulgarization of this motif (during the very years of Michelangelo’s work on this piece) and metaphor might have threatened the symbolic significance that Michelangelo sought.3 For that reason, Michelangelo may have become frustrated and attacked that specific part of the statue. Steinberg got much criticism and was misinterpreted on some accounts, which he explores in twenty years later in another essay (see third footnote).

The most recent and seminal writing on the Florence Pietà was published in English in 2003 by Jack Wasserman. This book unfortunately is out-of-print, but I was able to snag a lonely (yet very deserving!) copy at my university library. Wasserman has issues with Steinberg’s argument on a few levels, but basically argues that the placement of Christ sitting or reclining on the Virgin’s lap does not constitute an “aggressive” action.4 Wasserman gives the example of Caroto’s Pietà (c. 1545) as another example of an “unadulterated Pietà, without, that is, the carnal and symbolic accretions Steinberg imposes on it.”

Detail of stump and dowel hole, Michelangelo's Florence "Pietà"

Wasserman also cautiously suggests that Tiberio Calcagni might have actually been the one to remove the left leg of Christ (foot, thigh and calf) as he went about restoring the rest of the statue. Wasserman then finds, in turn, that Calcagni did not succeed in his attempt (or perhaps never attempted) to replace the limb. Calcagni may have created the stump (and the visible drilling hole, see above) with the intention of adding/reattaching a limb, but no traces of binding stucco have been found in the dowel hole. Wasserman even posits that Calcagni might have contrived the story that Michelangelo intended to destroy the Pietà (as reported by Vasari). Instead, “Calvagni desired to benefit from the fact that Michelangelo had broken away several other parts of the Pietà to disguise his own guilt for having demolished Christ’s leg without replacing it, thereby irrevocably disfiguring the great work of art.”5

Virtual image of limbless model and detached limbs, Michelangelo's Florence "Pietà"

The other interesting thing about Wasserman’s book is that he discusses how the several limbs of the sculpture were intentionally severed. Wasserman finds that the outlying limbs were removed in an effort to recarve the marble, not destroy the statue. Wasserman believes that Michelangelo used a point chisel to first remove Christ’s and the Virgin’s left arms, and then the right arm of the Magdalene. Then Michelangelo removed Christ’s right forearm, but left the Mary Magdalene’s head without damage.

With this new, practically limb-less marble, Michelangelo gained access to the reserve marble just left of the Virgin’s leg, in order to “excavate” a new left leg for Christ that would parallel the angle of Christ’s right leg.6 Perhaps, considering this new design, the Florentine Pietà might have more closely resembled Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà (1564).

1 Vasari, Lives of the Artists (1568 edition), as translated in Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg,” Art Bulletin 50, no. 4 (1968): 347.

2 Steinberg, 347.

3 Henry Thor, Michelangelo und das Ende der Renaissance, as translated in Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg Twenty Years After,” in Art Bulletin 71, no. 3 (Sept, 1989): 503.

4 Jack Wasserman, Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 84.

5 Ibid., 84.

6 Ibid., 70.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.