Oops, there's an elbow in my painting!

Recently, one read about how the Rs 7-crore painting ‘Three figures’ by artist Anna Leporskaya was defaced b a bored security guard, who drew eyes on one of the faces in the painting with a ballpoint pen. This was on his first day of work at the Russian Art Gallery, and the act eventually led to his dismissal. Public opinion has been divided on this, ranging from a hue and cry over the evident damage, however inadvertent, to the general lack of awareness about art (leading to such an incident) and the termination of employment over what is perceived by some as a ‘minor’ issue.

Accidents such as these, attacks and deliberate acts of vandalism have been fairly common in the art world. Accidental mishaps are most likely during the transportation and installation of the artworks. A glass-framed watercolour painting at one of my first curated exhibitions accidentally fell off the wall, and the glass shattered, but fortunately, the paperwork remained scratch-free. In another instance, the cleaners while washing the surface of the wall with soap and water, propped a ladder too close to the painting and some water spilt onto it. The damage was minor fortunately and the painting was retouched by the artist.

These are extremely minor episodes, which are fairly common. However, those that make the headlines are where millions of dollars are at stake and when the artist is a prominent name. There have been instances when visitors to a museum have accidentally spilt drinks, tripped over paintings and ripped them, walked away with or discarded pieces of the display from installations, and have made visible changes to the works assuming it was an interactive piece!

Here are a few famous and very expensive accidents that have caused a stir and sometimes resulted in a giggle or two. Some have been restored at a large expense and much effort, while others have been damaged irreparably.

Oops, there's an elbow in my painting!

In 2010, at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a woman, accidentally fell into ‘The Actor’, a very important piece of work by Pablo Picasso, its estimated value being $130 million. The almost six-inch tear on the canvas took three months to repair.

In a previous incident in 2006, again involving Picasso’s work, businessman Steve Wynn, owner of the 1932 masterpiece ‘Le Rêve’, made a deal to sell the painting at a staggering $139 million. A day later, he accidentally thrust his right elbow through the canvas, ripping a hole in it!

In 2001, gallery staff cleared away an installation by Damien Hirst, which appeared to be a pile of beer bottles, ashtrays and half-filled coffee cups that were strewn around. The staff assumed this to be remnants of a party from the previous night. The installation was in fact an impromptu exhibit created by Hirst from leftovers of the launch party. Subsequently, the objects were salvaged from trash bags and efforts were made to recreate the exhibit from photographs that had been taken earlier.

In a similar incident in the 1980s, a dirty bathtub put up as an exhibit by Joseph Beuys was cleaned and altered by a conscientious worker.

In 2000, a box containing a painting by Lucian Freud worth about $157,000 was disposed of in a crushing machine by porters at the Sotheby’s auction house in London.

The author is a Bengaluru-based art consultant, curator and writer. She blogs at Art Scene India and can be reached on artsceneinfo@gmail.com

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