A 22-year-old Houston artist named Uriel Landeros made news this past week after walking into Houston’s Menil Collection museum and vandalizing a priceless 1929 Picasso painting titled Woman in a Red Armchair. A fellow museum patron captured cell phone footage of Landeros spray painting the word “conquista” onto the painting using a stencil. The painting was rushed to the museum’s conservation lab for an emergency restoration, and Landeros was just arrested and charged with two third-degree felonies.
The defacing of priceless art pieces is nothing new, and museums often keep their most prized artworks behind plexiglass to protect them from renegade visitors. One example is the Mona Lisa, which has seen its share of vandalism attempts:
In 1956, the lower part of the painting was severely damaged when a vandal doused the painting with acid. On 30 December of that same year, a young Bolivian named Ugo Ungaza Villegas damaged the painting by throwing a rock at it. This resulted in the loss of a speck of pigment near the left elbow, which was later painted over.
The use of bulletproof glass has shielded the Mona Lisa from more recent attacks. In April 1974, a handicapped woman, upset by the museum’s policy for the disabled, sprayed red paint at the painting while it was on display at the Tokyo National Museum. On 2 August 2009, a Russian woman, distraught over being denied French citizenship, threw a terra cotta mug or teacup, purchased at the museum, at the painting in the Louvre; the vessel shattered against the glass enclosure. In both cases, the painting was undamaged.
Having a piece of glass protecting paintings and photographs definitely detracts from the viewing experience, but because of people like Landeros, it’s probably something that will become more and more common.