Gogh Punch a Monet
“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” — Pablo Picasso
Every year, the British Museum attracts over a staggering 6 million visitors (6,695,213 last year to be precise) and an undocumented amount of said visitors pass through Room 18, which encompasses shreds of the Parthenon sculpture. Ever since 1816 when MP Hugh Hammersley began the debate, there have been numerous calls for the statues to be returned to their homeland and restored to Athens. A few years later, in 1833, individual Greeks began their requests, and after the descent of military dictatorship in 1974, the removed statues became a symbol of freedom of thought, and subsequently democracy. Now a part of the Greek government’s policy, there is a beckoning for them to return home from over 2000 miles and after 200 years.
If it is hard for you to picture, instead imagine a work of one of the greats, Monet, Rembrandt or Rubens, destroyed. If it’s really hard, look towards examples where this has already occurred, such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus or the punched “Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat” by Monet. In both these cases, perpetrators acted with political motives, creating from the destruction of art the construction of an ideal. This wasn’t present with Lord Elgin, whose theft has simply fueled strife and caused cultural erasion regarding the holy monument. Over a period of 11 years from 1801 to 1812, Lord Elgin had people acting on his behalf remove around half of the Parthenon’s scupltures, and had them transported back to Britain. Even at home this was criticised, with prominent figures such as Lord Byron referring to this act as vandalism and nothing more.
On 10 March 1914, Mary Richardson smuggled a weapon into London’s National Gallery, and after smashing through the protective glass, proceeded to slash the Rokeby Venus.
The press immediately published her following statement after she explained her actions to the WSPU, “the leading militant organisation campaigning for Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom.”
“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Mrs Pankhurst seeks to procure justice for womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a Government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.”
The Rokeby Venus was painted during a time of censorship due to the power of the Church in 17th century Spain as a form of subversion against contemporary values, and subsequently wouldn’t be displayed as prominently as it was in the gallery. Thus, it truly was the display of an ideal Richardson went against, rather than the image itself. The press, despite their scathing comments, only aided the attack’s message. The description of the painting as if it was a real woman only highlighted the grip it had on the public, and rather than desensitizing the masses to the message, it caused it to spread like wild fire. The painting had been an emblem of feminine beauty since its display in 1905, institutionalizing this ideal into a culture struggling with the view of women as people rather than objects. Following the attack, it served as a beacon for the uncovering of androcentric ideals that repressed the suffragette movement through an emotional performance. Through showing her anger against this depiction of women, emotion which has often been held against women as a negative or detrimental trait, instead manifested as an ability to create a new symbol.Despite being the same image,they do not display the same message.
Richardson was only sentenced serve 6 months for her crime, although it seems unclear if she served this in full. Much more severe was the fate that befell Andrew Shannon, who served 10 times longer for punching a Monet in the National Gallery of Ireland. This painting too was repaired following an attack fueled by political motivations, although this was later denied by Shannon. Claiming first that it the aim of the offence was to get “back at the state,” he later retracted this statement, claiming instead that he felt faint and the attack wasn’t purposeful.
Since then, the image of the punched painting has become accredited in its own right, serving as a reminder to art students that their pursuit of recognition isn’t guaranteed to be fruitless. The road towards an art degree is often referred to in a negative light, as if they are wasting their time,energy, and money into paving a road to poverty rather than one to success. Although many artists, such as the depressed Gogh, were deemed nugatory during their lifetime, they left behind them a legacy abundant with currency and admiration. Despite this, culture as a whole seems willing to let artists wallow in poverty, as media is endlessly consumed with lack of regard to those who produce it. While many students can produce masterpieces equal to those of the masters in terms of aesthetic beauty and the cost of canvas and paint, the resale value will be null, as they have not been reduced to their last name. How ironic that a piece of art can evolve into another form, whilst a pristine picture remains undiscovered.
Beyond the cost of the materials, art has much more value, in terms of the aesthetic attraction of the piece and the ideas it represents. Here is where the beauty lies in destruction: in how an act of violence against art can become entwined in the history of art, and how, almost ironically, it causes it to become that bit more valuable.