image breaking making and faking

One time, when Moses was up a mountain chatting with God, The People made a young cow out of gold and debauched around it. Things got a bit awkward when the prophet returned. Bearing The Lord’s message that we ought not create images, he seized the golden calf, “and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and stewed it upon the water, and made the Children of Israel drink of it”.[1] Naturally, burning then grinding then stewing the man-made image wasn’t enough, it had to be consumed: to ingest is to assimilate and annihilate, to make the seen thing unseen by incorporating it into the body and turning it into energy / excrement.

The inverse iconoclastic compulsion here might be found several millennia later with the case of 22-year-old Canadian art student Jubal Brown, who on the morning of November 2, 1996, ingested an awful lot of blue cake icing, entered the Museum of Modern Art, and projectile vomited over Mondrian’s Composition in Red, White and Blue. It was the second phase in a series of three ‘performances’ he had planned, where he would regurgitate in primary colours over selected works of art that he felt had become “stale, obedient, lifeless crusts” within the institutional embrace of museums. Previously he had spewed in red over Raoul Duffy’s Harbour at le Havre and while his yellow installment was never realized, Brown (!) had publicly anticipated that the targeted work would “probably be something by Picasso”.[2]

As it happens, Picasso once said that “an image is the sum of its destructions”, and his work has been objected to destructive impulses several times. Decades after the Spanish surrealist Antonia Saura expressed his desire to attack Guernica (“I hate the glass that prevents my knife from opening vaginas in the damned canvas”), Tony Shafrazi spray painted “KILLS LIES ALL” in foot-high lettering across it in 1974, shouting “I’m an artist!” as he was dragged away. He explained his motivation in an interview with Art in America several years later: “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.”[3] Apparently, by historicising Guernica and turning it into a masterpiece, the museum-as-mausoleum had rendered it invisible in the present. The irony was that within a few years Shafrazi found himself historicising works of art for a handsome living, as the art adviser to the Shah of Iran and his Peacock Throne, and later as one of the most powerful New York art dealers (who sometimes handles Picassos).

No bite-sized survey of idiosyncratic iconoclasm in the modern world could circumvent the Hungarian-Australian geologist Laszlo Toth who in 1972 attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer, shouting, of all things, “I am Jesus Christ! Risen from the dead!” in front of a large crowd leaving Pentecost Sunday mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Before being carried away by a fireman, Toth managed to break in the Virgin’s eyes and part of her nose. Onlookers pocketed many of the pieces of marble that flew off; some were subsequently returned, but some weren’t and The Mother’s nose had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her lower back. It wasn’t the first time this body of the Blessed Virgin Mary, figure of ultimate unsoiled purity, had suffered non-divine intervention – four fingers on her left hand were broken during a move in the 18th century, and scholars are divided as to whether the restorer Giuseppe Lirioni took liberties to “make her gesture more rhetoric”. Toth was committed to an Italian psychiatric hospital for two years before being deported back to Australia, and Wikipedia tells me he currently resides in a nursing home in Strathfield, NSW. The restored sculpture, a copy of itself obtained using its own materials, is visible today at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City behind a bulletproof plexiglass barricade.

In nearly all recorded instances of attacks on artworks, the perpetrators are male. But, on March 10, 1914, a suffragette named Mary Richardson entered the National Gallery in London and hacked into Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. The story made the front page of The Times the following day, and Richardson calmly articulated her motives, saying her attack was provoked by the arrest of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst the previous day: “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.”[4]

The language in the newspaper reportage of the incident strongly recalled that of sensation murders. Nicknamed ‘Slasher Mary’ and ‘The Ripper’, Dickenson’s attack involved ‘furious hacking’, ‘slashing’ and ‘raining blows’ on the image of Venus that was anthropomorphised as a ‘victim’ bearing ‘cruel wounds’.[5] While there is no visible trace of these wounds on the victim today, the voluptuous, unflinching goddess of love and beauty was backstabbed and disfigured, and no matter how seamless the restoration, the image must always carry this episode of its history. To paraphrase the anthropologist Alfred Gell, we are no longer dealing with the same work at all: after Velázquez’s painting Rokeby Venus there was a short-lived work by Velázquez and Mary Richardson that was superseded by the work currently visible at the National Gallery, which we should see as a collaboration between Velázquez, Richardson and the museum’s restoration team. The most powerful of these works, Gell argues, was the one baring Richardson’s marks, because it signified a meeting of the lives of images and the lives of persons, and carried physical traces that testify to directly, rather than merely represent, the brutality that women endure.[6]

Before the court Richardson stated that she had been an art student but cared more for justice than art, and that the outcry over her act exposed the hypocrisy of a society that valued an image over human rights. According to her logic, as long as the social body was abusing the emancipated Mrs Pankhurst, Richardson was justified in treating its esteemed figure of idealised passive femininity in the same way. She was sentenced to six months imprisonment. She later became head of the women’s section of the British Union of Fascists.

When there aren’t explicitly stated ideological motives, many modern iconoclasts have been frustrated artists who considered their actions to have added to the work or unlocked some hidden artistic potential in it. Sometimes the artwork was asking for it – surely Duchamp (whose Green Box in 1934 contained the instruction Use a Rembrandt as an ironing-board) would be disappointed in us upon learning that there are only three recorded incidents of his urinal (Fountain), of which there are a dozen replicas scattered throughout museums worldwide, being pissed in. Other times the living artist’s response to a vandal’s intervention in their work is ambiguous. In 1994 Mark Bridger poured black ink into Damien Hirst’s Away From The Flock, a tank containing a dead white lamb in formaldehyde, naming the ‘new work’ Black Sheep. He was prosecuted, at Hirst’s wish, but when the artist later published a book featuring an image of the work with a tab that could be pulled to cover the tank in blackness, Bridger sued him for copyright infringement.

Even when the attacker is identifiable as an impotent / parasitic artist, there is something bigger going on in this persisting thread of iconoclasm (from the Greek for ‘image breaking’). In his pessimistic account of postmodernity as an epoch of nihilism, Baudrillard suggested that the Byzantinian iconoclasts had been visionaries who foresaw the future omnipotence of simulacra and the annihilating truth this would expose: that there is nothing behind the image and God was never anything but his own simulacrum. Their irrepressible urge to ‘break images’ over a millennium ago, according to this reading, arose from their prescient knowledge of our current existence where the simulacrum has no relation to any original truth; it doesn’t reflect or hide reality, it simply hides the fact that there is no longer any reality.[7]

Customarily ascribed to spontaneous, arbitrary, insane malignity, the motivations for modern iconoclastic attacks are often much more precisely considered than we seem prepared to admit. Clearly Laszlo Toth was unstable, but attacks like his are rarely completely out of control. Evidence of this can be found in the frequency with which the eyes of images are targeted. Signifying the capacity for sight, the eyes are the part of an image that can implicate us: they are threats because they remind us that as seeing subjects we are also by necessity seen objects. And if the eyes are what animate an image, taking them away eradicates the image’s potentially disturbing signs of life. Michelangelo’s image of the mourning Mary had since its birth been criticised for appearing too young to be the mother of the adult Christ, too peaceful to be a woman holding her murdered son on her lap, too beguilingly beautiful to be the Virgin Mother. Believing himself to be the Son of God returned, Toth took out her eyes because he was in some way unsettled or humiliated or scandalised by them.

Significantly, it is after exposure to the terrifying, interrogating, “living, human eyes” of the mysterious portrait in Gogol’s The Mysterious Portrait, that the young painter Tchartkoff becomes doomed. Cursed by his worldly success as a society painter, he discovers that he has lost all his true talent, and descents into tempestuous iconoclastic mania:

He conceived the most devilish plan which ever entered into the mind of man, and he hastened with the strength of madness to carry it into execution. He began to purchase the best that art produced of every kind. Having bought a picture at a great price, he transported it to his room, flung himself upon it with the ferocity of a tiger, cut it, tore it, chopped it into bits, and stamped upon it with a grin of delight.

Mary Richardson didn’t aim her chopper at the eyes of the goddess of love, going instead for her heart. Nonetheless her attack should be considered in light of the famously enigmatic gaze of this nude Venus who lies with her back to us, staring blankly both at herself and at the viewer (since we can see her face in the mirror her putti holds before her, what she sees reflected must be us). Was there something objectionable to Richardson in this captivating but elusive gaze? Whatever the stated political motive is, violent responses to powerful images must be considered in some way as an attempt to break the illogical and incomprehensible hold they can have on the individual. The art historian David Freedburg has argued that to truly submit to the power of the image is to fear it, and whatever personal axes the iconoclasts have to grind, they illuminate our own repressed responses to art. According to Freedburg’s argument, we consign iconoclastic attacks as arbitrary, deranged and devoid of meaning because to acknowledge otherwise would be to drop the defenses we erect between ourselves and the artworks that move us.[8]

If attempts to damage figurative images are understood as attempts to destroy their liveliness, what then do we make of similarly violent responses to abstract art? In 1982, in what was to become a curious trifecta of attacks on Colour Field paintings by Barnett Newman, a 29-year-old German veterinary student approached Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV in Berlin’s Nationalgalerie and kicked, punched and spat at it before striking it with one of the bars arranged around it to enforce distance from it. Who’s afraid indeed. Then in 1986, Gerard Jan van Bladeren entered the Stedelijk Museum and attacked the earlier painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III with a blade. The subsequent restoration of this work drew more controversy than the crime: lawsuits followed when the restorer took offence to the museum director calling his work (rumoured to have been done with house paints and a roller) a “botched job”. The total restoration and legal settlement costs came close to a million US dollars. Eleven years later Jan van Bladeren returned to the same museum, believing that he and Newman had finished the work in collaboration and that the restoration was incorrect. When he couldn’t find Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III he turned instead to Newman’s Cathedra and dragged a carpet knife through its entire 18-foot width.

Given that abstract art might be internally iconoclastic in its rejection of the figurative, do these reactions signify furious frustration at not understanding it or why it is valued? Alienated unease at not knowing how to respond to it? One thing we can ascertain is that there’s more going on in such attacks than mere corybantic malice: once again, most instances reveal a much higher degree of methodical, purposive and discerning mindfulness than we are comfortable with. We should acknowledge this, and while we’re at is we should consider how the subsequent restorations of artworks are often far less mindful than we are wont to believe. This is actually what I set out to write about, it’s just taken a while to arrive here. We should be more suspicious of restorers. By erasing the marks of time from works of art they renounce their material worldliness and historical reality. What time has done and continues to do to a work is part of that work, and the idea of returning it to an imagined ‘original’ state is highly problematic. It’s problematic not so much with regards to the loss of Walter Benjamin’s aura – but with regards to the dishonesty with which restoration crimes are committed in the name of ‘preservation’. Ruskin was aware of this when he wrote in 1880 that architectural restoration amounted to “the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied by false descriptions of the thing suffered.”[9]

The crudest embodiment of this bad faith is found in the restoration programs at the Vatican. We know that immediately after Michelangelo’s Mary had her eyes hacked out, replica ones were sculpted for her and she was forevermore ensconced in the plexiglass container that we are supposed to ignore when we stand before it. Less widely known is that within a few years the travesty-ridden restoration of the dirty Michelangelo frescoes on the Sistine Chapel vaults from 1980-1994 would give rise to a weird parallel with the art saboteurs who direct their attacks towards the eyes of images: the conservationists actually blinded several figures themselves. In this before-and-after shot of the figure of the ‘Jesse Spandrel’, a young women generally considered to be the Virgin Mary, we see her post-op robbed of her eyes (the right hand side is the ‘restored’ version). The results of institutionalised restoration and idiosyncratic vandalism can thus be alarmingly similar, but while the latter is honest about its will to destruct, the former can disguise its recklessness under spurious veneration.

Through extensive chemical cleaning and repainting, the fourteen-year restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes saw the surfaces smoothed, the lines sharpened, the colours lightened and brightened. Widespread outrage at the excessively invasive treatment was expressed by historians and critics[10] who argued that a fresco painted between the years of 1508 and 1512 that is made to look like it was painted yesterday is no longer the same fresco but a counterfeit, a case of make it till you fake it. The Vatican’s justification generally centred around the notion that the restorations would allow us to rediscover the original purity of Michelangelo’s true colours. One of the rudimentary ironies here is that we continue to look at these colours under artificial light – surely a far greater distorter to the ‘original’ pallet than the as yet irreversible passing of time. Despite any aspirations for timelessness, works of art that are made from materials of the world are subject to the duration of that world, and the battle against age can turn quickly from futile to frightful.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with preserving and minimising the decay of artworks, but to erase all marks of their history in the name of restoration is to falsify them. It should also be noted that our consensual attitudes towards restorations of the great artefacts of agreed canonical art history are irreconcilably inconsistent. We generally concur, for example, that many of our esteemed smooth white marble sculptures of ancient Greece were originally painted in garish colours. If the issue is one of returning lost colours to those of the dead artist’s intent, as per the press releases for the Sistine Chapel fresco restorations, then this should apply to the colours that once covered Phidias’s sculptures. But while we all want their forms preserved, few of us would advocate restoring their crude hues. The Elgin Marbles, retrospectively deemed great pinnacles of classical European taste, were rendered achromatic by the hands of time as well as those of the British Museum staff who scrubbed them with steel wool in the 1930s – and yet even if we knew we could match the original pigments exactly, we wouldn’t want to.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, memory is discriminating, creative and fickle. Preservation is always necessarily selective, and the definition of heritage is permanently unfixed. Considering what he terms the “rampant cult of preservation”, David Lowenthal has written about the ways in which material conservation excludes other ways of valuing tradition.[11] The notion that passive worship of the past can foreclose attention to the future and stifle innovation in the present is a familiar one. After a visit to the Louvre in 1856, the art critic Louis Edmond Duranty, for instance, wrote in his journal Réalisme, “If I had had some matches, I would have set fire to that catacomb, with the intimate conviction that I was serving the art of the future.” Dario Gamboni’s detailed survey of the wilful destruction of art since the French Revolution contains many examples of similarly destructive urges expressed by artists – from Pissaro’s “we must bring down the necropolis of art”, to Malevich’s “let all periods burn, as one dead body”, to the Futurists’ proposal that we free Italy from its “cancer of professors, archaeologists, and tourist guides and antiquaries” by demolishing its libraries and museums.[12]

The Pietà was the only work Michelangelo ever signed, but it is valid to ask whether or not the fragmented and reassembled sculpture is still indeed his work. Enter Plutarch’s question of the Ship of Theseus: If in the process of being repaired the ship had all its old planks replaced by new ones, would it be the same ship? The philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously added fame to this famous problem by asking what we would make of a second ship that was built out of the old planks. Which, if either, would be the original? That is, does a thing’s identity inhere in its continuing form (a ship) or its ephemeral materiality (a cluster of planks)?[13]

In keeping with Shinto’s emphasis on perpetual renewal, the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan continues to be completely dismantled and rebuilt with new materials every twenty years, as it has been for over a millennium. Thousands of sacred items and pieces of clothing are also burned and remade at the time of renewal, ensuring the traditional crafts and building techniques are kept alive, passed from one generation of artisans and carpenters to the next. There is no pretence of material originality, which in reality is impossible to sustain. To be sentimental about old wood would be to overlook the felt historical continuity of the living building in the present.

Of course, the moral and aesthetic problems of repairing hypothetical ships and rebuilding anti-monumental Shinto shrines are in some senses radically different to those of restoring unique works of art whose attribution to individual artists constitutes a large part of their identity. While he was head of the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome for several decades after it was founded in 1938, the theorist Cesare Brandi argued that professional restorers have a duty to honour both the historical moment of an artwork’s making as well as the time it has subsequently gathered. To try to imitate the original creative process is to intervene in that process, to commit “an offence against history and an outrage to aesthetics, claiming that time can be reversed, and that a work of art can be reproduced at will.”[14]

By leaving part of the degraded image untouched, Brandi suggested, restorers could retain the integrity of its ruin, and foreground the ongoing interplay of past and present, loss and recovery, history and fiction. He came to advocate the tratteggio(‘little line’) technique whereby restorers fill in parts of the image’s lacuna with extremely fine parallel vertical lines so that over time, through periodic restorations, it could become an archive of its own decay. While not widely practiced, tratteggio proposes an interesting reconciliation between fixing and faking – one that rises above futile attempts to erase all evidence of an artwork’s life as an object in the material world. Whether they have suffered violent attacks from human hands or the (also violent) marks of the hands of time, we should consider strategies like these that would allow man-made images to incorporate their histories. At least until Moses gets back.

Article published in Ampersand Magazine Issue 4, 2010


[1] Exodus: 32

[2] www.ausmall.com.au/law/crime14.htm

[3] December, 1980 issue

[4] ‘Miss Richardson’s Statement’, The Times, March 11, 1914, London

[5] See Nead, Lynda, 1992, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality, Routledge

[6] Gell, Alfred, 1998, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Oxford University Press

[7] Baudrillard, Jean, 1994, Simulacra and Simulation. trans. Sheila Glaser, University of Michigan Press

[8] Freedburg, David, 1989, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, University Of Chicago Press

[9] Ruskin, John. The seven lamps of architecture, Dover Publications, 1989

[10] See for example James Beck and www.artwatchinternational.org

[11] Lowenthal, David, 1989 Material Preservation and Its Alternatives, Perspecta, Vol. 25

[12] The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, Reaktion Books, 1997

[13] Hobbes, Thomas, 1962. Body, Man, and Citizen, Collier Books, New York

[14] Brandi, Cesare, 2005. Theory of Retoration, trans. Rockwell, Cynthia, Istituto Centrale Per Il Restauro, Nardini Editore, Italy