How to Destroy Priceless Works of Art
As hostility towards art mounts, we may have to learn to accept the ephemeral. Call it a coping mechanism, dammit.
Let’s jump right in and learn how to destroy the irreplaceable fruits of human creativity and skill.
How to Destroy Watercolours
Often the simplest way to destroy watercolours is to simply do nothing. Wood pulp contains acids generated by the enzyme lignin that will over time, cause paper to yellow, become somewhat fuzzy on the surface and easily torn. If you want to speed up the process, simply turn on the lights. It’ll help the lignin break down faster, so it yellows and deteriorates even faster.
The way lignin acidifies and destroys paper was only really identified in the 1930s, so there are plenty of old watercolours you can get rid of. These days watercolour paper comes in multiple levels of quality, the way most art materials do, and they range from papers bathed in a pH-neutral solution to counteract the acids, to ones with the lignin removed altogether. And while tradition methods of fire, ripping and tearing, and being trampled by horses will destroy a watercolour, if you yearn for the yellowy, brittle acidic old days, all you need to do is take some cheap newsprint paper and tuck the watercolour firmly into its folds. The acid from the newsprint will soak into the archival watercolour and begin its demise. For best result, change the newsprint every so often and keep it in the light.
How to Destroy Oil Paintings
Oil paintings are painted on canvas, and again, in some cases the best idea is to let the materials destroy themselves. Before 20th century chemistry, raw cotton or linen canvas was coated with a glue size to protect the surface from moisture. The most common glue size is rabbit-skin glue, a smelly and horrible substance, as I discovered when I had to double-boil some for an art history of materials class. After the rabbit skin glue is applied, some of it was mixed with calcium carbonate to create gesso, the common fine art primer. (Modern jars of acrylic based “gesso” are gesso the way “processed cheese food” is cheese.)
So the cool thing about all this rabbit skin glue if you want to destroy classic oil paintings: it is reactive to humidity. This is why art galleries maintain meticulous climates inside. The rabbit skin glue can expand and contract with humidity levels. Oh oh oh! and so can the wooden support the canvas is stretched on! All that wood to warp, and expanding and contracting glue will cause the oil paintings to crack right the hell up, from fine spiderweb-like wrinkles to vast chasms crosscrossing the portrait or landscape. So take an oil painting into a sauna, then a desert. In the same week.
If you’d instead like to destroy an oil painting and leave a personally incriminating mark on it as well (you cheeky bastard), simply press your thumb or finger into the oil surface. Even with varnishes, the natural oils and acids in your touch can slowly cause your fingerprint to appear, ruining the painting.
Of course with oil paintings there also the whole oil-is-flammable thing. The vegetable oils and turpentine they’re made with are ripe for lighting up. As what seems to have happened to the stolen paintings from the Rotterdam Kunsthal museum in 2012 when thieves took these paintings:
Charing Cross Bridge, London. 1901. Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge, London, 1901. Claude Monet.
Femme devant une fenêtre ouverte, dite la Fiancée, 1888. Paul Gauguin.
Woman with Eyes Closed, 2002. Lucien Freud.
Autoporträt, 1889–1891. Meyer de Haan
La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune, 1919. Henri Matisse.
Tête d’Arlequin, 1971. Pablo Picasso.
All images of the stolen Rotterdam Kunsthal paintings were distributed by police and are considered open source. Copied from Spiegel Online.
The technique for destroying these works of art is more complicated but not really. First, you are smart enough to plan an art heist that baffles police, but dumb enough to steal priceless works of art you have no hope of selling due to their notoriety. Then, after a year or so, let your mother burn them all in an oven. From Spiegel Online:
Six Romanians have been charged with the theft, and are currently awaiting trial. Olga Dogaru, the mother of one of the accused, told Romanian TV last week that she had incinerated the paintings in a stove after the arrest of her son. The thieves had been unable to find buyers for the works and she was worried about being discovered, she said.
Forensic specialists have since inspected the stove and found evidence of “painting primer, the remains of canvas and paint,” Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, told the Associated Press.
How to Destroy Sculpture
Erosion is too slow. Instead try either madness or xenophobia.
For madness, let’s take a look at Michaelangelo’s Pietà.
Pietà, 1498–1499. Michaelangelo. Image from Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Stanislav Traykov.
Michaelangelo’s Pietà is a major work for many reasons, including that no one had ever depicted Mary and her son in this pose before. Typically, Christ was laying across the ground with his head in his mother’s lap. Michaelangelo played with senses of scale to evoke a mother cradling her baby: if Mary were to stand up she would be a massive giant despite her delicate and youthful head. In 1972, a disturbed geologist shouted “I am Jesus Christ” and attacked the massive Pietà with a hammer, managing to knock off a number of marble pieces, many of which were taken and never returned, including Mary’s nose. (It was later re-sculpted out of a portion removed from the back of the statue.)
For xenophobia, we turn to the Buddhas at Bamiyan.
The taller of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, before and after destruction. From Wikimedia, photos by A. Lezine and Carl Montgomery.
Carved into a cliff face along the Silk Road in Afghanistan in the 6th century, these caught the ire of the Taliban who decided, “the statues were against Islam”. In the late 1990’s, holes were drilled into their faces for dynamite. This actually parallels a Christian practice of transforming pagan Roman temples into churches, and one of the acts was typically to behead or deface (literally ruin the face) of statues of Roman deities, often burying them under the new Church’s foundation.
In March 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up, despite international protest and an offer from India to remove them to that country.
March 21, 2001, the Buddhas were blown up by the Taliban. Image from Wikimedia, originally from CNN.
Art that Destroys Itself
Some art is created to decay, to evoke feelings of impermanence and dissolution. The destroyers are ultimately artists in the post-modern tradition who prefer their work to be fleeting. Andy Goldsworthy for example often works with objects found in nature such as icicles, pine cones, clay and coloured earth and bright autumn leaves, sculpting their forms into elaborate, not-quite natural structures. If you haven’t seen his film Rivers and Tides, you owe it to yourself as a human being.
Image still from Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature film. Used under Fair Use. Purchase on Amazon, you won’t regret it.
Want to Preserve Some Illustration?
Okay. So that was somehow both enraging and cathartic. I hate to see beautiful and provocative art destroyed without the agency of the artist.
If you do too, and would like to preserve some medical art, I strongly recommend donating to the Vesalius Trust. Medical and life science illustrators can will their work to the Trust after they die for preservation (there is no provision for digital work at the moment). When I met members of the Vesalius Trust at the AMI meeting here in Toronto last year I can confirm that they are absolutely passionate about the preservation of artwork. They cannot however, intervene to save artwork being mauled and destroyed by criminal acts. They’re almost super heroes, but not quite.
This list could have been tragically longer. I could have mentioned the destruction of Piss Christ by Andres Serrano at the hands of Christian zealots. My own anecdotes of people touching my still-wet oils. And what new works will be destroyed in America in the next four years? What amazing artworks will never be created by marginalized people targeted by a government of white supremacists?
Alright, maybe I’m not as calmed down as I thought. Time to go and watch Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides again to calm down and accept the ephemeral.
Originally published at blogs.scientificamerican.com, July 23rd, 2013. I have lightly edited the opening and some phrasing.