broken thinker

Le Penseur Pansé

The Thinker and the paradox of iconoclasm.

ruiltekst 1 - Dario Gamboni

The feet are cut at the ankles and one leg is missing. The left forearm has been severed at the elbow and the arm incised profoundly below the shoulder, the cuts extending into the chest. Two further cuts divide the face, one from the base of the nose to the left temple and another one across the forehead to the other temple and possibly beyond. These cuts open gaps in the body and face, and the upper part of the head is displaced to the side, as if the skull had been opened for some desperate operation. These brutal and clumsy interventions do not evoke so much surgery, however — and be it performed by a drunken Dr Frankenstein — as they do torture and mutilation, of the kind human history is only too replete of and Mexican drug lords currently put on display.

Granted, this is not human flesh but metal, not a human body but the representation of a body, a statue – beeld in Dutch, picture or image. But what is done to this image impacts us in a way that is strongly related to (although not identical with) the way we would be affected by the same kind of treatment inflicted upon its prototype, a human body. It is not so much conscious pity as Einfühlung, empathy, embodied perception. Is this impact stronger than the one produced by the statue of a martyr, for instance, or has the damage caused to the image of a unhurt body changed it into the image of a wounded body? This may depend on the spectator’s previous knowledge of the work and on how closely one looks at its damaged state, but even though they can evoke wounds made to a real body, the cuts reveal the physical texture of the bronze and thus emphasize the object at the expense of the image. And yet, the effect may be even stronger, because these ‘wounds’ are fresh and because they constitute — rather than represent — a physical assault. Moreover, while the cuts, gaps and missing parts are detrimental to the life-likeness of the statue, it also happens that the reddish substance revealed by the action appears more organic than the green patina of the surface, suggesting interiority and possibly blood. Finally, although the body looks strong and healthy, its tense pose and worried expression beg to be brought in relation with the ordeal it was put through, so that a treatment that was in no way — or so it seems — motivated by the work as such appears to dramatize it further.

Another disturbing factor of relevance is to do with the fact that Rodin, of all sculptors, is the one who valued accidents the most, or at least was the first to do so to such an extent (Michelangelo being an important antecedent). He loved fragments, he intentionally broke the plasters of his own works or casts from them and recycled the pieces, and he wrote in Les cathédrales de France — speaking about the iconoclasm of the French Revolution and its effects upon medieval statuary — that breaks are better than repairs since the latter ‘produce disorder’ whereas ‘A break is always due to chance, and chance is a great artist’. Albert Elsen referred to this in 1971 when asked by Sherman Lee, then director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, for his opinion about what to do with their cast of The Thinker, which had been severely damaged by an unclaimed explosion that left it deformed, without feet, and with the stump on which it sits transformed into a strange floating shape (ill. 1). It is one of the reasons why no attempt at restoring — rather than conserving — the work was then made. Instead, it was reinstalled on a new pedestal, inscribed with the title, the artist’s name, and a reference to two distinct moments in its ‘social life’ (ill. 2): its gift to the museum (with the benefactor’s name but no date) and the assault perpetrated upon it (with a date but no name, as was bound to be since the action had remained anonymous). As the hierarchy of letter-size shows, the inscription was meant to oppose a good deed — the gift, providing the benefactor with a rank equal to the artist’s — and a misdeed, the intentional damage. But given the normal function of dates on pedestals, the idea inevitably backfired (so to speak) and turned the statue into a monument to its own (incomplete) destruction. This paradox illustrates the conundrum that one faces when dealing with such actions and their results. It also reminds one that statues have often been vandalized, as Martin Warnke has shown in the context of the Reformation, precisely because their damaged state would continue to bear witness to the infamy to which they had been subjected, and extend this infamy to what they stood for.

But the Cleveland and the Laren Thinkers embody another paradox, namely that by attempting to destroy them, the iconoclasts only managed to make them unique, and to imprint them upon the memory of those who have encountered them — in the flesh, in a reproduction, and especially, in the Laren case, in the form of the photograph on the left. The material properties of bronze promoted its use for the multiplication of three-dimensional objects, including works of art, but have also led to ‘creative destructions’ and metamorphoses: cannons turned into statues, statues into cannons, and statues into other statues (depicting enemies of the ‘great men’ they had depicted in their former state, for instance). And while the legitimacy and the degree of ‘originality’ of bronze casts — which commercial interests tend to multiply further — often raise controversy, there is no doubt about the uniqueness of the ones disfigured by unwanted interventions. What about their ‘authenticity’? Measured against the artist’s intentions, such as they are documented by the original plaster and the well preserved casts of the same work, it appears to be lost beyond any hope of retrieval, so that the object should either be discarded or attributed to the iconoclasts in addition to the artist (as the Cleveland inscription does in its way). But if we follow a suggestion made by the British anthropologist Alfred Gell and consider that a work of art is everything that happens to it, whatever and whoever the ‘agents’, then another sort of authenticity emerges, historical through and through, contingent, fragmented, but real.

Such a step, however, threatens the body of our thinking about cultural property and material preservation with axiological questions that are trenchant and explosive. If an artwork remains an artwork whatever is done to it, and if iconoclasts are agents as legitimate as the most careful conservators, then does not anything go, and do we not invite anybody, as Marina Abramovic did with her public, to do anything they want (especially something memorable because disruptive) to something we care deeply about? And is it justified to call those who disfigured the Laren Thinker ‘iconoclasts’, when their confessed intention was to treat it like the other statues they had stolen, that is to sell the bronze as material? The Cleveland bombing took place in 1970, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, and although no one involved was identified, it was widely interpreted as an assault on the values of the establishment, embodied by the high culture on display at the Museum. Compared with this meaningful if regrettable context, the Laren case looks like history repeating itself as farce. Arrested because they left on the crime scene a Google map showing the way from their house, the two middle-aged metal thieves make one think of Woody Allen’s ‘small time crooks’, one of whom, digging a tunnel towards a bank vault with the lamp on his helmet turned backwards, explains that ‘it looks cool’. Yet the matter is serious, since the disappearance and destruction of bronze sculptures, easy to spirit away when placed out of doors, has been increasing in recent years together with the market value of the material.

Should we see this as a reminder, humbling for all those interested in the arts, that not everybody is convinced of the superiority of the work over the material, despite the long-standing and absolute victory of Ovid’s dictum ‘materiam superabat opus’ in the realm of aesthetics? As a sign that not only are markets sufficiently segmented, but our society sufficiently fragmented for the values applied in different sectors to be mutually incomprehensible and even incommensurable? Is the world in which the persons in charge of the Singer Museum in Laren and their public live completely unconnected with the one inhabited by the bronze thieves, despite the few miles separating them, or do they meet only to the extent that The Thinker is both a work of art and a piece of metal? Is it a case of complete separation of soul (or mind) and body, or does an implicit antagonism mediate between the two? When Arnoud Holleman presented me with the photograph of the damaged Laren Thinker, he observed that the particularly brutal cutting of the head could not be explained by the thieves’ wish to slice the statue into unrecognizable pieces alone and said that he suspected it to be an aggression against ‘high-brow’ culture.

Having studied twentieth-century iconoclasm, including in the Netherlands, I was reminded of the undertone of social warfare perceptible in cases like the assaults on Barnet Newman’s abstract paintings in the Stedelijk Museum and in their treatment by the media. Neither should we forget that reducing a cult image, a monument or a work of art to its material support has been a staple of iconoclastic discourse since Antiquity, and that a more specific topos directed against modern and contemporary art consists in explaining that one has damaged or destroyed an artwork because it could not be recognized as such but looked like something else, preferably like refuse. So, should the two Laren bronze thieves be regarded as unconscious rather than unintentional iconoclasts, blind to the meaning and consequences of their action — like the man in Goya’s drawing No sabe lo que hace — but no strangers to them? Or is such an interpretation only an attempt at consoling ourselves and at dressing the Thinker’s wounds while we meditate, bruised, upon them?


Ill. 1: Rodin, The Thinker, 1916 cast, intentionally damaged in 1970, detail. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. Photo D. Gamboni

Ill. 1: Inscription on the pedestal of the Cleveland Thinker. Photo D. Gamboni


References (in order of appearance) are made to: Harry Francis Mallgrave and Elef Therios Ikonomov (eds.), Empathy, Form, and Space : Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893, Santa Monica, Getty Center, 1994 ; Auguste Rodin, Les cathédrales de France, Paris, Colin, 1914, p. 66 ; Bruce Christman, “Twenty Years after the Bomb: Maintaining Cleveland’s The Thinker”, in Journal of the American Institute of Conservation, vol. 37, 1998, pp. 173-86 ; Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986; Martin Warnke, “Durchbrochene Geschichte? Die Bilderstürme der Wiedertäufer in Münster 1534/1535”, in M. Warnke (ed.), Bildersturm: Die Zerstörung des Kunstwerks, Frankfurt, Syndikat, 1977, pp. 71-72 ; Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998; Dario Gamboni, “Art, Agency, and Iconoclasm”, in Mikkel Bogh (ed.), Anthro/Socio : Towards an Anthropological Paradigm in Histories, Theories and Practices of Art, Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press, in press; Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0, 1974, performance, Galleria Studio Morra, Naples; Karl Marx, The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in Terrell Carver (ed.), Marx: Later Political Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 31; Woody Allen, Small Time Crooks, 2000, film; Ovid, The Metamorphoses, II, 5; D. Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, London, Reaktion Books, 1997; Francisco de Goya, No sabe lo q[ue hace does’nt know what he’s doing, c. 1814-17, drawing, Album E, p. 19, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin.