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How to Destroy Priceless Works of Art

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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So I’m furious and angry and sad about what happened to the paintings from the Rotterdam Kunsthal museum. If you don’t know, read on, I’ll get there. If blog post seems irreverent and tongue and cheek, call it a coping mechanism, dammit.

How to Destroy Watercolours

Often the simplest way to destroy watercolours is to simply do nothing. Wood pulp contains acids generated by the enzyme lignin that will over time, cause paper to yellow, become somewhat fuzzy on the surface and easily torn. If you want to speed up the process, simply turn on the lights. It’ll help the lignin break down faster, so it yellows and deteriorates even faster.

Not a watercolour, but my favourite book of art criticism. D.G. Rossetti from The Langham Series of Monographs, published in 1906. You can see the yellowing acutely: every time I read its pages in the light, I'm hastening its demise.

The way lignin acidifies and destroys paper was only really identified in the 1930s, so there are plenty of old watercolours you can get rid of. These days watercolour  paper comes in multiple levels of quality, the way most art materials do, and they range from papers bathed in a pH-neutral solution to counteract the acids, to ones with the lignin removed altogether. And while tradition methods of fire, ripping and tearing, and being trampled by horses will destroy a watercolour, if you yearn for the yellowy, brittle acidic old days, all you need to do is take some cheap newsprint paper and tuck the watercolour firmly into its folds. The acid from the newsprint will soak into the archival watercolour and begin its demise. For best result, change the newsprint every so often and keep it in the light.

How to Destroy Oil Paintings

Oil paintings are painted on canvas, and again, in some cases the best idea is to let the materials destroy themselves. Before 20th century chemistry, raw cotton or linen canvas was coated with a glue size to protect the surface from moisture. The most common glue size is rabbit-skin glue, a smelly and horrible substance, as I discovered when I had to double-boil some for an art history of materials class. After the rabbit skin glue is applied, some of it was mixed with calcium carbonate to create gesso, the common fine art primer. (Modern jars of acrylic based “gesso” are gesso the way “processed cheese food” is cheese.)

So the cool thing about all this rabbit skin glue if you want to destroy classic oil paintings: it is reactive to humidity. This is why art galleries maintain meticulous climates inside. The rabbit skin glue can expand and contract with humidity levels. Oh oh oh! and so can the wooden support the canvas is stretched on!  All that wood to warp, and expanding and contracting glue will cause the oil paintings to crack right the hell up, from fine spiderweb-like wrinkles to vast chasms crosscrossing the portrait or landscape. So take an oil painting into a sauna, then a desert. In the same week.

If you’d instead like to destroy an oil painting and leave a personally incriminating mark on it as well (you cheeky bastard), simply press your thumb or finger into the oil surface. Even with varnishes, the natural oils and acids in your touch can slowly cause your fingerprint to appear, ruining the painting.

Of course with oil paintings there also the whole oil-is-flammable thing. The vegetable oils and turpentine they’re made with are ripe for lighting up. As what seems to have happened to the stolen paintings from the Rotterdam Kunsthal museum last year when thieves took these paintings:

Charing Cross Bridge, London. 1901. Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, London, 1901. Claude Monet.

Femme devant une fenêtre ouverte, dite la Fiancée, 1888. Paul Gauguin.

Woman with Eyes Closed, 2002. Lucien Freud.

Autoporträt, 1889-1891. Meyer de Haan

La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune, 1919. Henri Matisse.

Tête d'Arlequin, 1971. Pablo Picasso.

All images of the stolen Rotterdam Kunsthal paintings were distributed by police and are considered open source. Copied from Spiegel Online.

The technique for destroying these works of art is more complicated but not really. First, you are smart enough to plan an art heist that baffles police, but dumb enough to steal priceless works of art you have no hope of selling due to their notoriety. Then, after a year or so, let your mother burn them all in an oven. From Spiegel Online:

Six Romanians have been charged with the theft, and are currently awaiting trial. Olga Dogaru, the mother of one of the accused, told Romanian TV last week that she had incinerated the paintings in a stove after the arrest of her son. The thieves had been unable to find buyers for the works and she was worried about being discovered, she said.

Forensic specialists have since inspected the stove and found evidence of “painting primer, the remains of canvas and paint,” Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, told the Associated Press.


How to Destroy Sculpture

Erosion is too slow. Instead try either madness or xenophobia.

For madness, let’s take a look at Michaelangelo’s Pietà.

Pietà, 1498-1499. Michaelangelo. Image from Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Stanislav Traykov.

Michaelangelo’s Pietà is a major work for many reasons, including that no one had ever depicted Mary and her son in this pose before. Typically, Christ was laying across the ground with his head in his mother’s lap. Michaelangelo played with senses of scale to evoke a mother cradling her baby: if Mary were to stand up she would be a massive giant despite her delicate and youthful head. In 1972, a disturbed geologist shouted “I am Jesus Christ” and  attacked the massive Pietà with a hammer, managing to knock off a number of marble pieces, many of which were taken and never returned, including Mary’s nose. (It was later re-sculpted out of a portion removed from the back of the statue.)

For xenophobia, we turn to the Buddhas at Bamiyan.

The taller of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, before and after destruction. From Wikimedia, photos by A. Lezine and Carl Montgomery.

Carved into a cliff face along the Silk Road in Afghanistan in the 6th century, these caught the ire of the Taliban who decided, “the statues were against Islam“. In the late 1990′s, holes were drilled into their faces for dynamite. This actually parallels a Christian practice of transforming pagan Roman temples into churches, and one of the acts was typically to behead or deface (literally ruin the face) of statues of Roman deities, often burying them under the new Church’s foundation.

In March 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up, despite international protest and an offer from India to remove them to that country.

March 21, 2001, the Buddhas were blown up by the Taliban. Image from Wikimedia, originally from CNN.


Art that Destroys Itself

Some art is created to decay, to evoke feelings of impermanence and dissolution. The destroyers are ultimately artists in the post-modern tradition who prefer their work to be fleeting. Andy Goldsworthy for example often works with objects found in nature such as icicles, pine cones, clay and coloured earth and bright autumn leaves, sculpting their forms into elaborate, not-quite natural structures. If you haven’t seen his film Rivers and Tides, you owe it to yourself as a human being.


Image still from Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature film. Used under Fair Use. Purchase on Amazon, you won't regret it.

Want to Preserve Some Illustration?

Okay. So that was somehow both enraging and cathartic. I hate to see beautiful and provocative art destroyed without the agency of the artist.

If you do too, and would like to preserve some medical art, I strongly recommend donating to the Vesalius Trust. Medical and life science illustrators can will their work to the Trust after they die for preservation (there is no provision for digital work at the moment). When I met members of the Vesalius Trust at the AMI meeting here in Toronto last year I can confirm that they are absolutely passionate about the preservation of artwork. They cannot however, intervene to save artwork being mauled and destroyed by criminal acts. They’re almost super heroes, but not quite.

This list could have been tragically longer. I could have mentioned the destruction of Piss Christ by Andres Serrano at the hands of Christian zealots. My own anecdotes by unthinking people touching my still-wet oils. The list goes on. Damn.

Alright, maybe I’m not as calmed down as I thought. Time to go and watch Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides again to calm down and accept the ephemeral.

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite and is on Instagram. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. way2ec 2:09 pm 07/23/2013

    “What’s it all about Alfie, is it just for the moment we live?” Japanese cherry trees that peak for a matter of days, autumn leaves that blaze for such a short time… and our need to immortalize ourselves and our works of art.

    Link to this
  2. 2. nancy5 2:37 pm 07/23/2013

    ah yes, the tenuous hold we share with our ever dynamic world! let if be free of our feeble desire to ‘stay it’ as it was never meant, leave art as something outside our ever controlling megalomanic human character!

    and to think my scratchings on those cave rocks would ever get the attention they now so deserve?? maybe in a few millenia some ‘new being’ will see them and wonder how we lived, loved and existed, for even a moment.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tyler.irving 3:06 pm 07/23/2013

    Great article, and enjoyed your exploration of the way different materials stand up to age.

    One small correction: lignin sounds like it should be an enzyme based on the name, but is it really? As far as I know it doesn’t catalyze anything, and parts of it look more like polysaccharides than proteins. I would be more inclined to call it a ‘biopolymer’ or a ‘macromolecule.’

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  4. 4. Glendon Mellow 8:40 pm 07/23/2013

    Thanks nancy5 and way2ec for those little quiet moments.

    Tyler.Irving, thanks and I’m glad you enjoyed the technical side. The result of a fine arts degree and 10 years managing in an art supply store as well as my interest in the technical side.

    I think you must be correct about lignin not being an enzyme. Possible I read that incorrect information and it stuck. Will update, cheers!

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  5. 5. cybernetichero 12:20 am 07/24/2013

    What about Monet who had surgery on his cataracts and then reacted to his new vision by either destroying or re-painting many works although some were hidden from him to save them. :( I always want to slap the man on the back of the head when I hear it.
    On the other hand, if Michelangelo hadn’t destroyed his first unfinished Sistine ceiling and started over we wouldn’t have the marvel we have. That reminds me you forgot to mention fresco.

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  6. 6. Glendon Mellow 7:02 am 07/24/2013

    cybernetichero, I’m a lot more sympathetic when an artist destroys their own work. I once painted over a large completed canvas because I never liked the work, and painted something totally different I like much better.

    You’re correct: I left out fresco. And egg tempera. And drawing. And photography. And found objects. And earthworks, clay, bronze casting, bodypaint, cave art, bioart, graphite powder…


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  7. 7. dorinspoaller 7:49 am 07/24/2013

    Hey, Romanian here. The woman has recently told the judge that she didn’t burn the paintings. And the stove findings are disputed by some scientists.

    There is still hope that the paintings are not lost forever.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Glendon Mellow 7:00 am 07/25/2013

    Thanks Dorinspoaller, I’ll keep and eye out and update the post if there’s more information. Tentatively good news!

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  9. 9. RPhoenix 12:53 pm 07/25/2013

    Excellent! I’d like to know more about art restoration. For example, do we have enough images of the Buddhas of Bamiyan to (maybe, hopefully) someday restore them in place? Even approximately? Also, what are considered to be the best art restorations to date?

    Link to this
  10. 10. Glendon Mellow 6:40 pm 07/25/2013

    Good question, RPhoenix, and actually there is talk of rebuilding the Buddhas of Bamiyan through anastolysis, a process of using the material that was destroyed combined with new material.

    The restoration (and discovery of caves behind them, containing what may be the earliest use of oil painting ever found) is pretty fascinating, and it is hoped will drive tourism to the area. You can read more about it on Wikipedia.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Psi Wavefunction 11:25 am 07/27/2013

    Nor are historic motion pictures safe from demise:

    Digital data aren’t immortal either. Preserving works of art seems to get harder as technology advances, ironically enough. Cave etchings survived thousands of years…

    Link to this

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