Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci's ‘Mona Lisa’ is touted as the most famous painting of all time. A masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, this work—it is housed at the Louvre Museum, Paris, which had the maximum museum visitors (2.8 million) in 2021 despite the pandemic—is also one of the most visited artworks in the world. The half-length portrait holds a Guinness World Record for the highest-known painting insurance valuation in history. Given the value attached, the ‘Mona Lisa’ has attracted its share of attacks by vandals.
The most recent one being on Sunday, when a 36-year-old man, reportedly disguised as an elderly woman in a wheelchair, threw a piece of cake on the painting. Witnesses mention that the man attempted to break the bulletproof glass case—it was installed to protect the painting in the 1950s after an acid attack. Despite the attempt, the man could only smear cream on the glass, and was seen throwing roses in the gallery while being escorted by security personnel.
In the videos recorded by shocked onlookers, the man—he has been detained and placed in police psychiatric care—was seen shouting in French, “There are people who are destroying the Earth … All artists, think about the Earth. That’s why I did this. Think of the planet!”
A moment of shock
While the painting remains undamaged despite the attempt, the incident has left the art world around the globe stunned. Calling the incident shocking, Bhavna Kakar, art historian and founder and director of Latitude 28, Lado Sarai, mentioned that the ‘Mona Lisa’ is, however, no stranger to such threats. In 1956, a vandal threw acid on the painting damaging the lower part.
In the same year, a young Bolivian named Ago Ungaza Villegas threw a rock at the 'Mona Lisa'. Another attempt at vandalism happened in 2009, when a Russian woman threw a teacup, purchased at the museum, shattering the cup against the glass case, leaving the painting undamaged.. “This is hooliganism. I don’t understand how this helps bring attention to any cause,” Kakar said.
Echoing Kakar’s view, artist Mithu Sen shared that the incident was a “stupid” attempt at drawing attention: “There is definitely a different way to call attention towards a cause. Destroying an artwork never solves anything.” Mentioning that the incident revived saddening memories of the demolition of two 6th Century monumental statues—‘The Buddhas of Bamiyan’ situated in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan—by the Taliban in 2001, Sen added, “When the statues were bombed, I could not sleep for a couple of nights. I just questioned ‘how is something like this possible?’ These incidents deeply disturb me as an artist and as a human being.’
Addressing questions of safety
The 'Mona Lisa' is one of the most protected artworks in the world. This incident not only calls into question the security measures taken by The Louvre but also nudges authorities to chew over what can be done for other galleries that may be housing valuable works but are unable to adopt the same measures.
Talking to The Morning Standard, Reena Lath, Director, Akar Prakar, Defence Colony, said, “The security measures at The Louvre are stringent. But you trust people, you trust them to follow rules, to follow discipline, and some respect. In France, people know how to respect art, view it, and take care of it. But despite this, if some people are doing something like this, I think it is deplorable.”
Such incidents also pose financial challenges for galleries, especially when valuable artworks are involved. In February this year, for instance, a painting by artist Anna Leporskaya titled ‘Three Figures’ at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, Russia, was ruined by a security guard who used a ballpoint pen to draw eyes on two faceless figures of the painting. Worth £740,000, the restoration cost of the painting was over £2,468.
Weighing in on this topic, Uday Jain, director, Dhoomimal Gallery, Connaught Place, shared, “Not every painting can be placed in a museum glass. Of course, care must be taken that an artwork is not exposed to direct sunlight or [is placed] under an object, which has chances of leakage, etc. However, for freak incidents like spilling wine on an artwork or someone throwing cake on an artwork, there is really not much that can be done except ensuring that you have proper art insurance and know good restorers.”
While those we spoke to for this story mentioned that strengthening general security is important, Iqrut Kataria, founder, Interstellar Art Gallery, talked about how vandalism can be stopped if people have open platforms where they can criticise art, or bring to light other issues: “I feel that this may be some kind of criticism. We need some sort of platform to criticise or appreciate art, especially ones that are local and vocal. Throwing cake is not the right thing to do; it is a very juvenile effort.”