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Desecration of Rothko painting threatens to derail spirit of trust

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 13, 2012

An art lover admires White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) by Mark Rothko – without feeling the need to deface it  CATHAL McNAUGHTON/PA WIRE

An art lover admires White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) by Mark Rothko – without feeling the need to deface it CATHAL McNAUGHTON/PA WIRE

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Here's a little quiz: Who's heard of Ugo Ungaza Villegas, William de Rijk, Hans-Joachim Bohlmann, Tony Shafrazi, Mary Richardson, Laszlo Toth or Jubal Brown?

No, me neither. Everyone, on the other hand, will be familiar with Leonardo da Vinci, Peter Paul Rubens, Pablo Picasso, Diego Velazquez, Raoul Dufy and Michelangelo – the artists whose work they slashed, shot, defaced or in some other way vandalised.

This week, conservators at the Tate Modern have been assessing the level of damage inflicted on a Mark Rothko canvas. The perpetrator claims to be a member of the "Yellowist" movement and that his act was driven by artistic expression.

Looking back through the history of vandalising high-profile works of art, it is difficult to put the latest attack into context. Political activists, such as suffragette Mary Richardson, were attempting to draw attention to their cause. A man who blasted Michelangelo's David with a shotgun turned out to be mentally ill. And then there was the individual who repeatedly stabbed a Barnett Newman canvas to take "revenge" on abstract art.

These are all understandable, if not necessarily defensible, reasons – but what inspires one artist to deface the work of another, as happened last weekend? If it had been a painting by Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot – or perhaps even Jimmy Savile – fair enough. But dear old Mark Rothko – who gave the world a unique body of viscerally uplifting work? It's simply baffling.

Regardless of where your artistic allegiances and tastes lie, it is hard not to be moved, intrigued and thrilled by the visual assault created by Rothko's seemingly simple act of laying paint on canvas. It is the secular equivalent to entering a holy shrine. Indeed, these manifestations of the human spirit might be considered the shrines of modern man – and surely we ought to be as outraged as if the perpetrator had struck in a church, mosque or temple.

This pointless act of violence – for that is what it was – was also an act of extreme treachery. Far from being a legitimate form of artistic expression, the dauber saw perfection, snatched it up, and sullied it. We are all poorer as a result – not only because something beautiful has been trampled underfoot, but if such behaviour becomes a trend Britain's art galleries and museums will simply put up the shutters, lock away their treasures and leave us to view art on a computer screen.

In the Tate Modern shop you can buy postcard reproductions of Rothko's work. They are tiny, pointless representations; the only way to see what the artist was getting at is to view the real thing. But to do so involves risk: that someone will disregard the trust which must exist between gallery and visitor. These objects are priceless and yet an unwritten contract has evolved allowing us all to get up close and personal – mostly for free.

Growing up in West Cornwall, my first real experience of the visual arts came during teenage years tramping to and from Newlyn and Penzance for school and later work. Newlyn Gallery at the edge of The Green was run at that time by John Hawkes, who welcomed everyone in for free, guided visitors through the exhibitions or left them alone. The wealth of work on display – both homegrown and visiting – was breathtaking. Without that free and easy admission policy, young people in particular would never have dared enter such a place, with its pristine walls and precious exhibits. Today, those seeds of enjoyment, learning and personal growth are incalculable.

But such freedoms are placed in jeopardy if the trust between holder and viewer breaks down, as it did in the case of the Rothko attack. The Mona Lisa is already shielded by bulletproof glass, while Copenhagen's serially attacked Little Mermaid may be moved to prevent further damage. It can only be a matter of time before more curators decide that enough is enough – and remove from view anything considered a target. It would be a sad loss to society if vandalism results in the treasures currently "owned" by us all are locked away from view.

As for the man who has admitted calmly scrawling on the Rothko painting in London's Tate Modern, his motives remain unclear. Vladimir Umanets said: "I believe in what I am doing and I want people to start talking about it... I don't want money, I don't want fame, I'm not seeking attention... it's good people are shocked... after a few years they will start looking at it from the right angle... I believe from everything bad there's always a good outcome... I believe in what I am doing, I have dedicated my life to this..."

Still awake? I didn't think so. But to be fair, we should give poor old Vlad a hearing – after all, apart from a probable court appearance, he is destined, like the list of names at the top of this article, to remain a footnote.

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