It was a shock last week when someone tried to stick with it Girl with the pearl van Vermeer at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and earlier when people threw tomato soup at a sunflower painting by Van Gogh in the National Gallery in London, mashed potatoes on a canvas from Monet’s series of straws in the Barberini Museum in Potsdam and whipped cream. by Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. And the end is not yet in sight. What do these paintings from 1503, 1665, 1800, 1888 and 1891 have in common, apart from being famous and at the pinnacle of Western art history?
It happens even more often now than a century ago, when activists also attacked works of art. Then the vandals drew attention not to climate change, as they do now, but to women’s suffrage. In 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War, suffragettes in London took carving knives to the museum and carved into paintings. The most famous canvas they worked on was a large nude, the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez in the National Gallery, painted around 1650. Now no canvas was damaged.
The masterpieces attacked in 2022 are all behind glass, apparently not that common for a painting, even in a museum. Once you knew, the shock was followed by relief. Or disappointment? We were cheated. It was fake. They were virtual assaults staged by the activists, especially horrifying in movies, if you thought that the cheek of the girl Vermeer painted almost 400 years ago on the cheek of a bald man with glasses would leave the canvas forever. Gone, the blush that so fearfully defies time. No, it will continue.
The films actually reflect the works of art they attacked; these too are after all a kind of virtual representations of reality, of course not made of pixels but of paint. Also fooled. Also fake. ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, Magritte wrote in 1929 under the image of a pipe. The sunflowers van Gogh is not a sunflower, Monet’s halmides are not halmides. The pearl in the girl’s ear was already a fake, probably made of fish scales and now fake again with paint.
The seventeenth-century painter Rachel Ruysch sometimes did not even paint the wings of her butterflies. She pressed a copy onto the wet cloth, leaving the wing’s pigment on it. Her colleague Elias van den Broeck did the same and had to leave Antwerp when the ‘deception’ was discovered. But it’s not cheating, right?
Who could be against the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020?
Since the second commandment, the ban on images, was conceived, the relationship between art and reality has often been difficult. And before that. Iconoclasm is of all times. The pharaohs already smashed the statues of their predecessors and rivals, and from ancient Egypt we can go straight through the Romans to iconoclasm, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China, the blowing up of the Buddhas in Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
For a long time it seemed to me that being against the destruction of works of art was merely his manageable position, like being against the death penalty. You shall not kill. You must not destroy the art. “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen,” wrote Heinrich Heine in 1823, and between 1933 and 1945 he was proved right.
Positively perceived iconoclasm
But there are just as many counter-examples to positively experienced iconoclasm. The Hungarian uprising started in 1956 with a statue of Stalin toppled, after the fall of the wall came statues of Lenin and other communist leaders, the statues of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and who could be against the overthrow of the Soviet Union in 2020? statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol? After the death of George Floyd in 2020, hundreds of statues fell around the world, Black Lives Matter caused one of the biggest iconoclasms since iconoclasm.
Now iconoclasm is fake, a protest performance. It only looks real in the picture. Do we see some of the power of images in the violent reaction to climate activists’ fictitious destruction of paintings? Or is it just about violating a capitalist taboo? Is it about money? The selected paintings are all worth millions.
The climate activists have so far not chosen an abstract painting to almost attack. This often happens in vandalism by loners, such as the man who twice attacked a painting by Barnett Newman in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. This is often done precisely by conservative artists, or by very progressive artists. In 1997, Russian artist Alexander Brener sprayed a dollar sign on a canvas by Malevich in the Stedelijk to protest the commercialization of art. All these recluses bear a resemblance to Herostrates, who is said to have set fire to a temple to Diana – one of the Seven Wonders of the World – in the fourth century BC. His motive? He wanted to become immortal. His punishment included forbidding anyone to mention his name. Damnatio memoriae. But we still know him.
It is not often that activists have used art in museums for a political purpose. And if they do, it might seem at first glance that the type of art doesn’t matter. But that seems to be the case for both the suffragettes and the climate activists. Both are realist art, a genre whose magic has still not been worked out so many thousands of years after the Lascaux caves. It’s always about appearance and being.
Mary Richardson protested his attack on Rokeby Venus against the capture of Emmeline Pankhurst the day before, 9 March 1914. Richardson defended himself thus: “If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs. Pankhurst and other beautiful living women.Much later, in the 1950s, she added that she did not like the way men ogled the naked Venus.
Perhaps there is a key here, because can you still claim that women are more beautiful in paintings than they often are in real life, let alone that you can see the creatures naked, e.g. tomatoes, sunflowers or halmids? not the case. What is the difference between a strawberry and a strawberry painted by Coorte? The strawberry from Coorte is usually praised because it looks so much like a real strawberry. Is there really no more? Or is that already enough? Is this what is left when there are no more real strawberries? Everyone paints a death mask? All art an advance on destruction?
A member of the German action group Letzte Generation put it this way: “What is more valuable: art or life? Why are many people more afraid of damaging an image than of the destruction of nature itself?