Radical Perspectives in Oil and Ink: Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and the development of English Modernism. An article by Andy Stewart MacKay

Two sisters: one a painter, the other a writer. Born Victorians but striving to live freely as independent women in the inter-war period, through their work they transformed the role of women in the arts and became epicentre of the English avant-garde.

Vanessa BellVirginia Woolf

The desire and the need for personal freedom permeated the lives of the painter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941); they simply could not and would not answer to anyone other than themselves. It is difficult to overestimate the degree to which their Victorian parents affected their live and work. The profound loss of their saintly mother Julia Stephen in 1895 and the relief brought by the death of their domineering father Sir Leslie Stephen in 1904 ostensibly set them free to create alternative lives.

46 Gordon Square Bloomsbury

Without formal education but intimately connected to the key cultural players of their time, they used their modest inheritance to set up home in the shabby London district of Bloomsbury. Half-deliberately severed from the past and purposely alienated from their extended relations, Vanessa’s and Virginia’s closest friends in youth – like those of contemporary urbanites today – became their live-in family. Hierarchical familial structures were consciously avoided in favour of democratic, communal or, more specifically, collegiate living. Unable to reconcile their liberal ideals with the Grand Narratives of their day – Capitalism, Imperialism, Christianity and Marriage – Vanessa, Virginia and their friends implicitly set themselves apart: identifying as left-wing atheists because they refused to be subjugated by conservative and religious dogmas; branded bohemian because they valued a variety of sexual arrangements; passionate artists because they could generally afford to avoid the everyday tyranny of monotonous toil. Without negating the very real value of their liberal humanism, nowadays it can sound very much like a philosophy of the privileged few. One cannot forget Margaret Schlegel’s admittance in E. M. Forster’s Howards End that ‘independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means’. And here is the defining Bloomsbury conflict – lying only just beneath the surface: a desire-for as well as a rejection-of the comforts and security of the previous generation.

Virginia Woolf

Such tensions proved fruitful for Virginia who spent the next forty years of her life writing out personal negotiations with the past, creating unparalleled visions of the modern world and our place within it. Vanessa too forged a path all of her own, painting vigorously for the next sixty years in a manner faithful to her own convictions of life, love and philosophy. Undeniably part of the Establishment yet also self-proclaimed Modernists, the Stephen sisters conceived of themselves as outsiders and this is the key to understanding their work as well as their importance for the British avant-garde.

 

Andy Stewart Mackay’s first book, ‘Angel of Charleston’ will be published next year.

ATTENTION ALL STUDENTS: Join Andy at Tate Britain THIS SATURDAY  24 November at 11am for a morning of Modern British Art. Tickets only£10, call the office or email us to book your place now: +44 (0) 1379 871800 info@arthistoryabroad.com

What does China have to offer? AHA alum Laura Moore reviews the exhibition ‘Art of Change’ at the Hayward Gallery

When I heard we had a field trip to the Haywood Gallery to see an exhibition by Chinese artists I was intrigued.  I know very little about the Chinese culture, mostly learnt from Disney’s Mulan, but I was very surprised at the works I saw, and they were very unexpected.

The exhibition was called ‘Art of Change – New Directions from China’ and I thought it would be full of unusual postmodern art that makes you think about the world from a completely different viewpoint.   The gallery was full of such a wide range of art that it was quite confusing to work out whose work it was.  They did have a catalogue but most of the work was unlabelled which added to the confusion.  However, there were a few interesting pieces of work hidden between gym equipment and x rated clay figures.  There was one in particular which was a piece by Xu Zhen called ‘In just a blink of an eye’.  The work consisted of a man that looked as if he had fallen.

"He is alive"

As we entered the room, we couldn’t work out whether this was an incredibly life like sculpture or actually a person.   As we began to inspect the body, we realised that he was breathing.  I thought this piece was absolutely inspired as it made the viewer engage in it so much more than just a painting on a wall.  It also made me doubt my eyes, as I couldn’t believe that they were alive as they were unbelievably still and it is impossible to stay in that position.  It was only until I saw him blink that I fully believed he was real.  It was then that I cried ‘He is alive’ and as a result making him laugh which convinced the rest of the room.

I was then really excited about the rest of the exhibition and couldn’t wait to see what was in the next room.  Unfortunately I was greeted by a life size Rhinosarous and an Anchiceratops. Yes they were very detailed and I could appreciate the craftsmanship but I just couldn’t see the point of this work and what it represented.

Wonky Wick Whack

However, my day didn’t end on a low, as there was a jagged, uneven Ping Pong table that the viewers could play.
This gave me great amusement and it proved tremendously difficult to return the ball.  We were having a great match until we saw the sign that read ‘Please hit the ball ONCE’.  That slightly killed our fun.  I did enjoy the exhibition but I felt that I didn’t really get a sense of what the art movement in China was doing and where it was going.  There was just too much randomness and pointlessness for me and I am very open-minded when it comes to modern art.  It was fascinating and I would recommend going to see this exhibition though, even if it is for the Ping Pong.

Art of Change: New Directions from China continues at the Hayward Gallery until 9 December

HOW TO BE ROMAN: Lucy Chiswell’s top ten substitutes for tourist traps in the eternal city

 

As a tourist in Rome, it feels like you are in the majority doesn’t it? Queuing for the Vatican with two thousand fellow sardines, speaking English, eating with a view of St. Peter’s and buying a purple polyester shawl covered in Rome’s famous monuments; you are no different to the rest of them. But how much do you want to be the swarthy twenty four year old Italian, riding with a bella ragazza on the back of his Vespa and heading to the coolest aperitivo in town? Well I’m afraid I can’t make you twenty four, swarthy or provide you with an Italian lady, but what I can do, is tell you the top ten local hangouts and the ‘off the beaten track’ scenes of the Caput Mundi. But don’t worry, I’ll give you a well-known equivalent so you don’t feel too out of your depth…

 

1) THE GELATO

Now if you think I’m easing you in gently, then you’ve clearly never had Italian ice-cream. Food is, without doubt, Italy’s number one pride and joy (you can forget the culture), and gelato sits up there at the top with pizza, pasta and the Fiat 500. The problem with Rome is that there are so many ‘gelaterie’ (sing. gelateria) to choose from that you just end up going to the touristy one that is next to the touristy restaurant  in the touristy area that you are having a touristy lunch. But the trick is to know the crème de la crème (or ice de la crème as it were) of gelaterie… So instead of heading towards the Pantheon (the area is infamous for its selection of gelati), I would head to Alberto Pica.

Thanks to Joan Allegretti

 

This is without doubt the numero uno gelateria in Rome… and that’s not just because it is situated one minute from my old apartment. Unassumingly placed off the busy Largo di Torre Argentina, you will know where you are when you see a group of eighty year-old Italian men shouting at one another, smoking, and eating gelati in the leafy outdoor seating area. Do not be put off by this, nor by the neon sign above the entrance or the surly wrinkly lady seated at the till in the dated Italian bar who, for a fact, has never smiled in her life.

Thanks to ladepeche.fr

 

Buying most things in a (traditional) bar in Italy usually goes a bit like this: choose, buy your ticket, give the man behind the counter your ticket, and then tell him what you want.  In Pica, you will have chosen your cup size (if only it could be that easy…) and after paying Signora Grumpy you will give her deceivingly friendly-looking son your choice of gelato.  If you’re feeling safe, go for the best Crema in town, if you’re mid way on the adventurous-o-meter go for Pistacchio and if you are feeling as daring as me every day that I was in Rome, dip your fluorescent plastic spoon into Riso or Riso e Canella. Yep, that’s right, your Italian translation skills are correct. Rice. Rice ice-cream. Or rice and cinnamon for those of you with more of a sweet-tooth. Just think rice pudding, but frozen.

In the name of the father, the son and the holy gelato, I can promise you, Alberto Pica’s Riso is the best ice-cream that’s ever passed these lips…

Thanks to emirates247.com

 

To visit Alberto Pica, you need to head to Via della Seggiola, 12 00186 Roma. For a map, visit: Alberto Pica Google Maps

‘Bad Artists Copy, Good Artists Steal’

The National Gallery is about to house its first major exhibition of photography, entitled ‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.’ It is a collection of photographs that have used old masters, most of which are from the Gallery’s collection, to inspire their work. Undoubtably, it is an exhibition to get excited about. Not only will it be a delightful game to draw connections and make patterns, but it should also help us relate to old paintings that are now somewhat removed from society.

The Small Bather 1828, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Richard Learoyd Portrait, 2011

 

 

For example, Richard Learoyd, the London based photographer, makes a beautiful reference to ‘The Small Bather’ by Ingres. Learoyd chooses a heavily tattooed man as his subject but keeps the iconic pose of Ingres’ nude. The viewer immediately spots the similarities of light and form, but also the differences as our detective eye considers the harem of women surrounding Ingres’ nude but not Learoyd’s.

 

The opening of the exhibition has encouraged me to share my project called “Bad Artists Copy, Good Artists Steal’ which I did for my final piece at Art School. I used this quote, thought to be said by Picasso, to show how throughout time artists have always stolen ideas from each other. Sometimes they steal an exact composition but paint it in their own style. For example, Picasso spent four months on a series based entirely on Velazquez’s ‘Las Meninas.’

'Las Meninas,' 1656 Diego Velázquez

 

'Las Meninas, After Velazquez' 1957, Picasso

I began researching my favourite portraits and thought of aspects of the piece I could steal in order to make my own image. I found out all I could about the sitter in the portraits and then I would get into character by dressing up like them and trying to act like them. I realised as a viewer we only ever consider the sitter in that exact pose. What about a few seconds before of after the image? Surely they would be fidgeting or maybe talking to the artist, perhaps complaining of a sore back, or asking when the next break would be?

 

I wanted to take famous images, steal the key composition but change the subject to myself. One day I would be Frida Kahlo with flowers in my hair, the next I would be Van Gogh with a cigarette and bandaged ear. My flat in Edinburgh was converted into a kind of theatre. One that saw a different famous artist each day. I would sit in front of my tripod for hours, firstly trying to capture the image that had exactly the same composition, secondly trying to capture supporting images that went with the theme and mood of the image.

 

The first portrait I stole from was one by Chuck Close. I have always loved the boldness of this piece and wanted to steal his lazy, colourless gaze. I drew facial hair on my face with eyeliner and covered my hair in gel to emulate his scruffy look.

Big Self Portrait' 1967-68 Chuck Close

With Thanks to Chuck Close, 2011

Days later, when I was satisfied with this image, I began to act around this pose. I imagined what other positions Chuck Close may have tried before he decided on this one.

With Thanks to Chuck Close, 2011
With Thanks to Chuck Close, 2011

In this way we are reminded that the sitter was once a living, moving person, not just the 2D representation from one fixed angle that we are now familiar with.

Watch out for further blogposts by Caroline St Quinton along this theme…

A little note from the Hills of Tuscany

With our pioneering Semester Students well into their last week in the Tuscan hilltown of Montepulciano, one of our tutors Alice Lindsay has jotted down a few of the best things about being there…

 

1)   Il Sasso school of Italian and its wonderful teachers.

 

2)   Drawing al fresco in the hills below Montepulciano.

 

3)   The caprese salad at La Pentolaccia.

 

4)   The kindness and hospitality of the two host families.

 

5)   Olive picking under the Tuscan sun.

 

6)   The gardens of La Foce.

 

7)   The stray cats to be found in every little alleyway of Montepulciano.

 

8)   Gregorian chants at the beautiful abbey of Sant’Antimo.

 

9)   Learning how to make gnocchi at ‘Casa Lilian’.

 

10) Our wonderful bus driver Ilario, “Il Postalino della Val d’Orcia”.

 

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The Romantic Myth of the Art Thief, by AHA alum Charlie Whelton

 

Last week, the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam fell victim to a significant heist, when seven paintings were stolen, including Pablo Picasso’s Harlequin Head and Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, London and Charing Cross Bridge, London.

The art thief holds a peculiar place in the popular consciousness. People who are outraged and appalled by the vandalism of works of art and morally opposed to stealing somehow are still drawn to what is essentially the synthesis. The image, fuelled by films, books and television programmes, is of a suave gentleman thief in a black turtleneck, who uses his intellect, his cunning and an array of gadgets to bypass intricate security systems and carry out his meticulously planned heists. His motivations are none so base as mere money; rather he steals for the thrill of the chase, the intellectual exercise, and for the love of the paintings. Unfortunately, the image rarely lives up to the reality.

When a lone thief stole five paintings worth €100 million from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, there was no hallway of lasers to negotiate or any need to rappel down through a skylight, in fact the alarm system had not been working for weeks. All the thief needed to do was break a padlock and a window and not wake up the guards (they were rumoured to have been sleeping at the time of the break-in). And this was regarded a heist of ‘extreme sophistication’. Other, less ‘sophisticated’ heists are even further from the fantasy, with the need for skilled planning reduced by the presence of guns. This is not the game of wits films like The Thomas Crown Affair showed us. This is incompetent security and threats of violence.

In fact, in reality, stealing the paintings is the easy part of the whole affair. Once that is done, the thief will often find they do not know what to do with them. It is nearly impossible to sell a well known stolen painting on the open market, and the idea of the amoral wealthy private collector who hires thieves to steal famous artworks appears as much of a myth as the romantic thief himself. As the president of the Tokyo Palace Museum in France said, ‘no collector in the world is stupid enough to put his money in a painting he can neither show to other collectors nor resell without going to prison’.

Where Matisse's La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune once was. From the Herald Sun.

So what does happen to the paintings? A common pattern is that stolen artworks are used in collateral for drug deals or illegal arms sales, moving these paintings from the hands of opportunistic thieves to serious criminals, and further from the fantasy. They may also be used as a bargaining chip; a sort of ‘get out of jail free card’, the idea being that the artwork is hidden until the criminal is arrested for a separate offence when he can swap the knowledge of its location for a reduced sentence. A third possibility is that the thief may simply try to claim the often substantial reward money from the museum for the missing pieces. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston offered $5,000,000 for information leading to the return of the 13 paintings stolen in 1990, although none have been recovered. The sad fact is that a large number of stolen artworks are never recovered; lost or destroyed as in the case of Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, stolen in 1969, or around sixty of infamous art thief Stephane Breitwieser’s collection, which his mother destroyed after his arrest.

Despite all the above, the image of the romantic art thief remains undiminished. The attraction of the cultured outlaw is strong enough to overpower the disappointing reality. However, when you consider the very real possibility that Picasso’s Harlequin Head, taken in the Kunsthal heist, could face a future as a makeweight in drug deals, be stored in secret away from appreciative eyes, and possibly never be recovered, the myth of the art thief loses its romance.

Interview with an Auctioneer: Lucy Speelman talks to Henry Wyndham, Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe

A world-class auctioneer in action

 

Henry Wyndham is no ordinary man.  His long and illustrious career has taken him all over the art world, from Christie’s to private dealing to hammering down world-record prices for artworks as a world-renowned auctioneer.  Loved by all at Sotheby’s, during my internship I noted that his name was spoken with what can only be called reverence.  In fact, there were cookies with his face on them at the Christmas Party… He also has an uncanny resemblance to Jeremy Clarkson. In appearance and height.  But I digress.  So I sat down with the connoisseur himself to ask a few questions…

1. What made you want to go into the art world?

From a very young age, I had the collecting bug.  I collected stamps, and moved on to all sorts of things, like militaria, and when I was about 12 or 13, I started buying drawings.  Really cheap ones – I had absolutely no money.  I reckon I knew at 16 that I wanted to go into the art world, but I didn’t really know what ‘the art world’ meant.

2. What side of the art world were you most drawn to – commercial or academic?

There wasn’t any contest for me, because I really didn’t do well academically – I got rather poor A Levels and I never went to university.  Also I was much more interested in the commercial side, so I was lucky.  In the art world, there’s a fork in the road and you either go left into the commercial world or right into the academic… but in my case there was really no choice!

3. So where did you start?

I did the Sotheby’s Fine Art course in 1973 at what is now called the Sotheby’s Institute, and was taught by this incredibly charismatic figure who used a very non-academic, visual approach, and focused on your eye.  He was just absolutely brilliant – very inspirational.  Then I got offered a job at Christie’s, and I was there from October 21st 1974.

4. So for young people who want to train their eye, you recommend ‘looking’?

I personally think that there’s no substitute for looking – you can read all the books in the world… but art, in my view, is there to be looked at.  I’m relatively self-taught – I suppose you could say I was a type of apprentice in that I joined Christie’s and learnt as I went along. Also I worked hard at it – I used to go to the National Gallery in my lunch hour.  That’s immensely helpful – visiting museums and just looking and looking and developing your eye.

5. Why did you move on to private sales?

I was married and I had children, and I needed to try and make some money.  I’m glad I did it – I probably wasn’t terribly good at it, but I think it was very good for what I do now, as I understand where the dealers are coming from.

6. The auction and private worlds used to be very separate – how much do you think that they are now merging?

I’ve been in the art world for the best part of forty years, and I’d say there’s been more change in the last five years than the previous thirty-five – the role of the auction house has changed dramatically, and one of the changes is the private sales that they do.  I know it’s not necessarily in the interest of the dealers, but it’s a natural progression – we know who the buyers are and we know who owns the pictures. But the main core of our business is and hopefully will always remain as auctioneers.

7. Best thing about working at an auction house?

It’s the nature of the business – the idea that you get beautiful things for sale that you handle, and there’s this theatrical moment when you actually sell it.  What I like about an auction is that it has a conclusion of somebody actually putting a hammer down.

8. If you could relive any moment of your career, what would it be?

Oh god… actually funnily enough I think the greatest moment of my career was selling the wonderful Rubens – The Massacre of the Innocents – because I think that was the greatest painting that has been on the art market in my forty years.  I can’t think of anything to match it.  I know it’s not the most expensive, but for me it’s far-and-away the greatest.

'Massacre of the Innocents' by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-12, Art Gallery of Ontario. (Sold at Sotheby's London, July 2002 for £49.5 million)

9. Something surprising/unexpected/unusual that you have come across?

The most exciting collection that I’ve seen was probably the Evill/Frost collection that we sold last year.  Going into that house for the first time and seeing it was a complete eye-opener – it wasn’t just the [Stanley] Spencers, it was things like very early Freud drawings, and a fantastic Patrick Heron from 1954.  I was completely knocked out – normally when you go places you vaguely know what they’ve got, and with this I just hadn’t a clue.

Patrick Heron's 'The Blue Table with Window: 1954' realised £1,049,250 at the Evill/Frost Collection sale (est. £250,000-£350,000)
Catalogue cover for the Evill/Frost Collection Part I auction on 15th June 2011 at Sotheby's London

 

10. Where does your expertise lie?

I’m very lucky in that I’m a sort of jack of all trades – I started in Old Masters and then I moved into 19th Century European, then English pictures, then Modern British, and now I suppose in a way I’m more 20th C, so I’ve really covered the whole spectrum.

11. If you could own any work of art in the world, what would it be? Money and location no object…

Oh my god… you might have given me six months to think about this… Actually, I know exactly what it is – the wonderful picture in the Prado by Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross.  That is, in my view, the greatest picture I know.  That’s the one.

Henry's personal pick - 'The Deposition from the Cross' by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden, c.1435, Museo del Prado, Madrid

12. Many AHA students want to go into the commercial art world – what advice would you give to them?

You need to be very passionate about the subject, and you’ve got to be prepared to do a lot of hard work.  Dealing with people is also very important – it’s very much a people business.  And… just keep on knocking at the door!

World Building of the Year: thoughts from AHA alum Will Martin

Sitting in the kitchen of my slightly dingy student house, I received an email asking me whether I’d like to blog about the World Architecture Festival. At the time my housemate was sitting next to me eating pasta with tomato sauce. An irrelevance you might think, but seeing a picture of the building that won, the Cooled Conservatories at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, I couldn’t help think that it bore a striking resemblance to the Conchiglie he was eating. Maybe this is indicative of what my parents have been saying for years, that I’ve always got food on the mind, or more likely that it’s designed to look like a shell, like the pasta. This would probably fit considering that it is built by the sea.

Another first impression to strike me was that buildings of this nature, with sweeping curves and copious amounts of glass, have been slightly overdone in the past decade or so. For instance, in my hometown of Newcastle (technically its in Gateshead), we have the Sage, a music centre, which opened nearly eight years ago, and for the life of me, I’m struggling to see any real progress in terms of aesthetics. Yes, it is aesthetically pleasing, but it just seems to be almost trying too hard. Call me old fashioned, but I like my buildings to have a few straight lines and a bit of stone in them. My other problem with this building is that it seems not to fit in with the landscape of its surroundings, but then again nothing seems to in the Singaporean landscape, everything just sort of looks like its been plonked down.

The Sage Gateshead, opened 2004

Whilst I may not particularly admire the aesthetic element of the Conservatories, I cannot help but be mightily impressed by the way in which they are constructed. Designed by London based firm Wilkinson Eyre, the shell of the building is extremely fragile and can apparently only support its own weight, whilst the external arches have been designed to increase the rigidity and wind resistance of the buildings, whilst also allowing as much light as possible to penetrate the building. The buildings are also called the Cooled Conservatories for a reason, they are cooled naturally, and without and air conditioning. How this is done is mighty impressive and I couldn’t even begin to explain it in such a short space of time, but suffice to say, it’s rather revolutionary. All very clever, but this project just seems to me to be a little forced.

An interior shot of the 'Flower Dome'

Within the Conservatory complex itself, a very interesting point is raised. Both Conservatories contain Flora from environments that are likely to be greatly affected by climate change and global warming. The larger of the two buildings, the Flower Dome focuses on how cultivated plants in the Mediterranean region will suffer as temperatures rise, whilst the smaller ‘Cloud Forest’ looks at the impact on biodiversity of the warming of tropical forests, as well as methods of sustainable development which can be used to slow the impact of global warming. Whilst this is all well and good, it seems slightly strange to build this complex in the very near vicinity of a race track used by Formula One, one of the least environmentally friendly sports on the planet.

Although I may not be a fan of the design of the buildings in terms of looks, I think it’s hard to argue that the construction and internal cooling systems of the Conservatories are not impressive. This along with the fact that the Cooled Conservatories focus on just how important and damaging climate change could be to our planet, make them a worthy winner of the WAF’s World Building of the Year.

For more information about the Cooled Conservatories, and the other winners at this year’s World Architecture Festival, go to http://www.worldarchitecturefestival.com/

We’d love to know your thoughts about the winner of the World Architecture Festival as well. Please send them to alex@arthistoryabroad.com, find us on Twitter @AHAcourses, or ‘Like’ us on facebook.

What Drives People To Deface Art? AHA alum Charlie Whelton discusses.

 

On Sunday afternoon, Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon joined the long and varied list of artworks that have been vandalised, when Vladimir Umanets wrote on the mural with black paint. The list of defaced works includes such seminal pieces as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s Pieta and David. But what drives people to partake in the willing destruction of works of art?

There are often psychological reasons to blame for art vandalism; the man who attacked Michelangelo’s David claimed to have been acting under the orders of  ‘Veronese’s beautiful Nani’ – a model for the sixteenth century artist, while the Pieta vandal believed himself to be Jesus Christ. In 2007, a man put his foot through Ottavio Vannini’s The Triumph of David, having been unbearably disturbed by the sight of Goliath’s severed head.

Sometimes, a vandal will find a piece of work so objectionable that they are driven to deface it, to express their disgust and hinder it from being seen. This is what happened with Marcus Harvey’s controversial Myra, which depicted the serial killer Myra Hindley constructed out of children’s handprints. The gallery in which it hung had its windows broken and the work itself was vandalised twice with ink and eggs. Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women was likewise attacked in Washington’s National Gallery by a woman who claimed Gauguin was ‘evil’ and that the painting ‘should be burned’.

It may appear counterintuitive, but a large number of attacks on artworks are committed by artists themselves, supposedly in the name of engaging with, or even improving the piece. In 1996, Canadian artist Jubal Brown famously vomited primary colours on works by Raoul Dufy and Piet Mondrian to make a statement about ‘oppressively trite and painfully banal’ art, claiming that the former work was ‘just so boring it needed some colour’. Similarly, French artist Rindy Sim, upon leaving a lipstick kiss on Cy Twombly’s Phaedrus claimed it would make the work more beautiful, and Pierre Pinoncelli argued that his destruction of Duchamp’s Fountain with a hammer was performance art that the Dadaist would have approved of.

Umanets would place himself in to this group, having claimed afterwards to have ‘increased the value’ of the painting by using it as a platform for his ‘Yellowist’ art movement. However, it is a persistent argument that for all of the talk of artistic motives, the primary consideration of these vandals was to draw attention to themselves.

Though the vandal-artists above may reject the ‘attention-seeking’ tag, art is often openly targeted for attention, in the form of political protest. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi sprayed ‘KILL LIES ALL’ on Picasso’s Guernica as a protest against the release on bail of William Calley, who took part in the My Lai massacre; in 1987 Robert Cambridge shot a Leonardo da Vinci cartoon in the National Gallery to draw attention to ‘political, social and economic conditions in Britain’; and in 1989 a man slashed ten Dutch works in the Dordrechts Museum to protest against immigration in the Netherlands. Most famously, in 1914 Mary Richardson attacked Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, saying:

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.

 

Though the above may seem like separate, varied reasons that people deface art, it can all be distilled down into one very important point: art is powerful. Artworks hold the power to shock and enrage people to the point of smashing them; they inspire people to the extent of physically ‘engaging’ with them, and enrapture people to the point that a protest that encompasses the works cannot be ignored. Each attack on a piece of work, as sad as it might be, is also a shining validation of the enduring power of the painting in our modern world.

As for my interpretation, I believe that the worst attack on Picasso’s Guernica did not come from Shafrazi’s spray can, but the blue curtain which covered it up while Colin Powell spoke to the UN in favour of war in Iraq. To hide a painting of such immense power just when the world needed to be reminded of it most, is to me the greatest act of vandalism.

 

‘A potential piece of yellowism’? More a pointless act of vandalism

Yesterday afternoon I received a phone call from a friend and fellow art lover exclaiming “we have just been evacuated from Tate Modern because someone has defaced a Rothko!”. It was a rather exciting yet upsetting piece of news yet the first thing that came to mind was “why Rothko?”, his paintings often criticised by those who don’t favour their abstraction, but rarely deemed politically or socially motivated to a point that they might provoke vandalism. It now transpires that there was no distinct reason, but that Vladimir Umanets, co-founder of a contemporary movement in Russia named ‘Yellowism’, believes he found “the perfect choice” after arriving in the gallery with intent to write on a painting but without a plan of which painting it would be.

Tim Wright who was in the gallery tweeted this image and wrote: "This guy calmly walked up, took out a marker pen and tagged it. Surreal"

The canvas in question, Black on Maroon, was painted in 1958 as part of Rothko’s Seagram murals,  which were intended for Manhattan’s Four Seasons Restaurant but were instead presented to the Tate by the artist in the late 1960s. On the same day that they were received by the gallery in 1970, the death of the artist was announced. The paintings in the series all use the same sombre palette of dark reds and black, and adopt the compositional feature of uniform rectangular patches. They are displayed together in Tate’s Rothko Room.

The Rothko Room, Tate Modern

Umanets, who has admitted to the act but denies he is a vandal, believes the writing, which says ‘a potential piece of Yellowism’, has “added value” to the piece but the public have been quick to demonstrate their disgust via social media, as one BBC journalist tweets “The defacing of the Rothko is not a work of art – Duchampian or otherwise – it is an act of vandalism.”. However one cynical comic commented, “Defacing Rothko painting more difficult than painting it”.

Some have already formed the opinion that ‘it could be worse’, especially when compared to a woman punching, wiping her bare bottom and attempting to urinate on a $40m Clifford Still in 2011, or the man who in 1972 took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta in belief that he was Christ himself.

Image showing Mary's damaged nose after a Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo's Pieta with a 12 pound hammer in 1972

This incident reminds me of something I once read about the artist Edvard Munch, whose life works incidentally are currently on display in the same building. He had expressed the wish for his paintings to live organic lives – to be taken wherever they must be taken and to display the effect of the journey on their physicality, rejecting any conservation and restoration. An art historian commented at a time of similar outrage, when the Scream was famously stolen from Oslo’s Munch Museet, that perhaps the artist would have been quite excited by the event! Yet however there is something much more upsetting, disturbing and offensive about scribbling over an artist’s completed work than the theft of a canvas in tact. Despite his best intentions, it appears to me that Mr Umanets might be just a little mad, and has only wasted his and the gallery’s time. Fortunately, Tate announced today that the work can be fully restored.