Wednesday, August 9, 2017

315. A Suffragette Attaque on Painting: Mary Richardson versus Diego Vélazquez

The discussion about the destruction of individual art works raises questions that are never easy to answer. Some works of art are victims of terrorist acts, disappear during wartime bombardments, are attacked by confused people, or by the artist in person, for whatever reason.

On 10 March 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson (1882/3-1961), planted a knife in a painting by the Spanish artist Diego Vélazques (1599-1660). It wasn't personal, it was an intensely motivated political act of violence, while suffragette protests were becoming increasingly frustrated by a failure to achieve equal rights for women. 

Vélazques' painting was known as 'The Toilet of Venus', 'Venus at her Mirror', 'Venus and Cupid', or the 'Rockeby Venus'. Painted between 1647 and 1651, it was considered a treasure  by the National Gallery in London where the attack took place, more than 250 years after its conception.

Diego Vélazquez, 'The Toilet of Venus' (National Gallery, London)
There may have been many reasons for the attack on this particular painting that is considered to be one of the first female nudes in art history, depicting a woman from behind, showing her as an object of lust. The god Amor holds up a mirror reflecting her face.

Later, Mary Richardson was asked for her motives, and she said:

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.

A recent radio show broadcast (a rebroadcast in the Netherlands of a Belgian program) discussed the destruction, and the restoration, of the painting.

Should the original painting be restored, or should a damaged painting be kept as is, to show its history, damage included, to bear witness of its changing place in society, and its transient political meaning? Or should the destructive act be ignored, and the painting be allowed its blissful, brilliant original state.

Is a painting like a stone, or is it part of an ongoing debate?

Diego Vélazquez, 'The Toilet of Venus' (National Gallery, London, 1914)
What about Charles Ricketts's stand on this subject? I suppose we can guess that he was against the attack, for art's sake. His diaries are clear on this. 

He doesn't use the name of Mary Richardson, and calls her 'a' suffragette.

News of injury to Rokeby "Venus" by a Suffragette. I do not think we realize yet the new element of danger, which is daily increasing, owing to the spread of education, which leads too often to an exaggerated sense of the importance of the ego. Sabotage, suffragette outrages, all spring from deception following on emancipation. Old Matthew Arnold's question, "Freedom for What?" is the burning question which smoulders under all effort at improvement or change.

He was convinced of 'the imbecility of the act' which he saw as 'a dim stupid wish for retribution', and he didn't support the idea of art being held hostage by revolutionaries.

A work of art was to be seen as something much more elevated than any other element of daily life. Art was Ricketts's religion. To touch a painting was to touch the face of a God.

Still, when his friend Shannon needed nursing, he sold important, treasured paintings to pay the bills.

In Ricketts's time, it was found that the destruction should be undone, and the surface of the painting should be restored, and never again show the traces of the knife.

In August 1914, Ricketts noted that the painting was 'very well restored', and that it was 'looking exceedingly well under a new coat of varnish'.

A coat that was meant to keep its recent history hidden, and that mimicked the original skin of the painting. Nowadays, a restoration would also show where repairs had been necessary.

And the label would mention, apart from the artist's name, the name of the painting's enemy.