Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Vandals and Heroes

Over the centuries many great works of art have been cruelly vandalised, some beyond repair. Others, despite the experts' best efforts at restoration, will never be the same.

The vandals are often fanatics acting at the behest of some imaginary entity, but sometimes the damage is done by the custodians of the works themselves.

As recently as 2001, the two monumental Buddhas of Bamyian, listed by UNESCO as a Wolrd Heritage Site, were comprehensively destroyed by the Taliban .

The Mullah Mohammed Omar, having declared the statues idolatrous, announced to his flock that "it will give great joy to God if we destroy them". The lads assured the pious cleric the job would be done by teatime and they let fly with anti-aircraft guns and artillery. However, the Buddhas proved a hard nut to crack, in a manner of speaking. It took them several weeks of shelling, even placing landmines at the foot of the statues so that falling pieces would set off more explosions. Eventually they had to lower men down the cliff face to place explosives into holes in the Buddhas to finish them off.

The two magnificent statues, which had stood since the sixth century, were obliterated at last. Can't have idolatry !

The Rokeby Venus is one of the finest nudes ever created. A treasure of the National Gallery in London, the life-sized painting of a nude woman seen from the rear has been called the Baroque equivalent of a Playboy centrefold and the "most smackable backside in art".

Poor Venus also suffered at the hand of a fanatic: this one not so much religious as ideological. The militant suffragette Mary Richardson, who said she didn't like the way men looked at the Venus, took an axe to the painting, as described in The Times of Wednesday, March 11, 1914:

"The famous Rokeby Velasquez, commonly known as the "Venus with the Mirror," which was presented to the National Gallery in 1906, was mutilated yesterday morning by the prominent militant woman suffragist Mary Richardson. She attacked the picture with a small chopper with a long narrow blade, similar to the instruments used by butchers, and in a few seconds inflicted upon it severe if not irreparable damage. In consequence of the outrage the National Gallery will remain closed to the public until further notice."

The painting was carefully restored, but the slash marks are still faintly visible.

Picasso's masterpiece, Guernica, shows the tragedy of war and the suffering it inflicts upon innocent civilians. It is a powerful and emotional work, and has deservedly gained a monumental status as an anti-war symbol, a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war.

The painting depicts the bombing of Guernica, a town in Spain, by German and Italian warplanes. While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso suffered harassment from the Gestapo. One officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."

In 1974, while on display at MoMA in New York, one Tony Shafrazi, protesting the My Lai massacre, defaced the painting with red spray paint, painting the words "KILL LIES ALL". Luckily the paint was removed fairly easily from the varnished surface.

I am very privileged to have had a close-up view of Michaelangelo's Pieta at St Peter's in Rome, two weeks before a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a hammer while shouting "I am Jesus Christ". Now the masterpiece is only visible through bulletproof perspex from a distance of several yards.

But luckily we can still get up close to admire Michaelangelo's exquisite Mother and Child in Bruges, the only one of his sculptures to leave Italy in his lifetime. That is, until some maniac gets word from on high to have a go at destroying it, when no doubt it will also be sequestered behind a perspex shield.

I'll end this sad litany of vandalism with the tribulations of Rembrandt's "Night Watch". It was first hung in the regimental HQ of the militia company it depicts. In 1715 it was moved to the Amsterdam town hall, where it did not fit on the desgnated wall, so the City Fathers lopped off a yard or so, containing three figures, from the left side, plus a couple of feet off the other three sides. That neatly solved the problem.

Luckily, the Rijksmuseum holds a smaller reproduction of the original work, so at least we know what it used to look like.

On the eve of the German invasion in WW2 the great painting was removed from its frame and rolled round a cylinder. It was then buried in sand dunes but later hidden, with the bulk of the Rijksmuseum's treasures, in a mine. Hermann Goering's fame as a non-paying art collector preceded him!

It survived the rigours of war with no damage, only to be attacked in 1975 by an unemployed school teacher, who fought off a museum guard and told bystanders that he "did it for the Lord." The painting suffered a large zig-zag of slashes. It was successfully restored but some evidence of the damage is still observable close-up.

In 1990, a man sprayed acid onto the painting with a concealed pump bottle. Security guards intervened and water was quickly sprayed onto the canvas. Luckily, the acid had only penetrated the varnish layer of the painting and the painting was fully restored.

… and now, at last, we come to the good bit, the story of two unlikely heroes: the writer Aldous Huxley and Anthony Clarke, a young officer in a British artillery regiment.

In the 1930s, Huxley was touring Italy, when he visited the village of Sansepolcro (Holy Sepulchre) in Tuscany. Here he saw "The Resurrection", the masterwork of the Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, painted circa 1460.

A tour de force of composition, Piero's widely admired painting depicts the risen Christ stepping out of his tomb while beneath him the guards slumber. Kenneth Clark called it "one of the supreme works of painting". Huxley was entranced by the work and described it in a book of essays as "the greatest picture in the world".

This is a bit from the essay he wrote about it:
"The best picture in the world is painted in fresco on the wall of a room in the town hall.

Some unwittingly beneficent vandal had it covered, some time after it was painted, with a thick layer of plaster, under which it lay hidden for a century or two, to be revealed at last in a state of preservation remarkably perfect for a fresco of its date.

Its clear, yet subtly sober colours shine out from the wall with scarcely impaired freshness. Damp has blotted out nothing of the design, nor dirt obscured it. We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty; it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world."

(I recently saw a BBC documentary about the painting, in which a teacher in the village of Sansepolcro tell the children in his art class the story, whereupon a little boy innocently asks if Huxley had seen all the pictures in the world.)

Come World War Two, and a British artillery battery is deployed outside Sansepolcro, Captain Anthony Clarke commanding. Orders come from H /Q to shell the village, which is held by the Germans.

Captain Clarke yells: "Fire!" and the first salvo rings out. Before he gives the order to fire the second volley, he remembers why the name "Sansepolcro" sounded so familiar to him: he had read Huxley's essay before the War.

Putting his career on the line and risking a court martial, Clarke gives the order to cease fire. He did not want to go down in history as the man who destroyed the greatest picture in the world.

For once God was on the side of the art lovers - the Germans withdrew without another shot being fired.

Anthony Clarke is a hero in Sansepolcro - his statue is in the town square and there is not only a street named "Via Anthony Clarke", but also numerous little boys called Antonio. Huxley also has a street named after him, but perhaps not any little boys - I don't think "Aldous" translates well into Italian!

I can recommend the BBC documentary series "The Private Life of a Masterpiece", which reveals the fascinating stories behind 24 major works of art. Comprising 7 discs with a total running time of ten hours, it is well worth the $70 they will charge you for it at any major audio-visual retailer. Christmas is coming!

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