Punish him. Make it hurt.
When this writer — an aspiring painter — heard that someone had thrown paint on Tom Thomson’s masterpiece Northern River, I was very angry.
It happened this week. A man came to the National Gallery in Ottawa and smeared pink paint across the front of it. He was a member of an “environmental” group called On2Ottawa, reports said. After he defaced Thomson’s work, he glued himself to the floor.
A “climate activist,” some media called him. A “terrorist,” others might call him.
I come from a family of artists, you see. “Art is the greatest form of hope,” the British artist Banksy once said, and it’s true. To deface Thomson’s painting — which took two years to complete and is considered one of the greatest works of art ever produced in this country — was to deface hope itself.
My initial reaction, I confess, was that someone should break the fingers and arms of the paint-thrower, so that they can never do it again. I was that angry.
But, no. That’s extreme. That’s the kind of thing the Taliban does, isn’t it? Ironically, the paint-throwers share quite a bit in common with the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist group that now rules over Afghanistan. They try to murder art, too.
The Taliban burn books, prohibit music and — infamously — kill works of art. Upon seizing power in the 1990s, the Taliban systematically and efficiently destroyed thousands of works of art at the Afghan National Museum and elsewhere because they were “un-Islamic.”
In all, 70% of the museum’s artifacts — some 100,000 individual works — were destroyed by the Taliban. In 2001, they obliterated the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan because they were considered un-Islamic and blasphemous. The statues were more than a 1,000 years old.
The destruction of art — the extermination of art — was not something invented by the Taliban, however. Over the centuries, it has happened many times.
Acid thrown onto a Rembrandt by a mentally ill man in Russia. A Velazquez ripped to shreds by a British feminist who later embraced fascism. A shotgun blast fired into a Da Vinci depicting The Virgin and Child in London’s National Gallery.
And, of course, fascists and extremists often target art first. The Nazis destroyed thousands of works of art by cubists, expressionists and impressionists in Germany and France — because they considered them “degenerate.”
So this week’s attack on Thomson’s masterwork is not without precedent. (It was not permanent, either; glass protected it from permanent damage.) Lunatics and monsters are always using beautiful works of art to make a political statement.
And Thomson’s Northern River is unquestionably beautiful. It is extraordinary.
Our greatest artist worked on it on a large canvas — unusual for him — over two years in 1914 and 1915. It depicts thin, dark trees reaching for a Canadian sky, some water glinting in the background. It is a scene that every Canadian has seen or should. It has been described as perfect. It may not be that, but it certainly seems like a perfect rendering of the Canadian wilderness.
It’s not known where Thomson saw what would later become Northern River. Algonquin Park formed the subject matter of many of his masterpieces, of course, but a friend of Thomson’s later said it wasn’t a scene from there. So it could be anywhere in Canada, really.
Why would anyone want to destroy something like that? Why attack beauty? Why would they smear paint on it?
On their website, On2Ottawa says that they are prepared to break laws because “the state is acting immorally.”
Maybe. Perhaps. But the ones who try to destroy art that depicts the very environment that On2Ottawa claims to be concerned about?
They’re the ones who were the most immoral this week.