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Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #15

A few months ago, I began looking into occurrences of art vandalism-- the purposeful destruction or harm of works of art that have occurred consistently, especially throughout the 20th century. Mostly I wanted to focus on some of the reasons why a single individual might choose to attack a work of art, as opposed to outright destruction by a large body of individuals for political or religious motivations. Along the way, I learned that so many of the most famous artists and works of art have been affected by these terrible actions: Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci. The list goes on and on. And as I read up, I saw that most of these events were one-offs: single moments where one person made a rash and ridiculous choice to lash out at a particular work of art. But then, I began to notice one name popping up over and over again. Just as there are famous artists who rise to the top of the canon of art history, it turns out that there was a granddaddy of all of the art vandals in the world-- a German man who, over his lifetime, damaged over fifty works of art, creating a name for himself and a lasting impression on the art world.

At the beginning of the year we started a new series of episodes that look at questions or issues that aren’t specific to any artist, period, or piece. Instead, these look at bigger trends or theories in the history of art. In episode 11, we explored the topic of art attacks, particularly focusing on the reasons why people might harm or destroy artwork. This show today  is a continuation of that episode, focusing on one very particular person with a very particular passion: public art vandalism.

 Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more.  And today, in a continuation of our Bigger Picture series, we are going to dig deeper into art attacks and examine the life and legacy of the vandal Hans-Joachim Bohlmann. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

In terms of those who attack art, the name Hans-Joachim Bohlmann is a big one. His utter existence used to scare the living daylights out of people in the art world, because for nearly 40 years, he caused millions of dollars worth of damage to incredible art treasures all over Europe. Any art attack is an awful prospect, but the possibility of a repeat offender who could attack again and anywhere? Horrifying. But how did it all start? And what was motivating him?

Hans-Joachim Bohlmann was born in 1937 in Breslau, Germany, which became part of modern-day Poland after World War II. And he didn’t have a particularly happy childhood. His family was poor, and it seems that his father was rather abusive and his mother was emotionally absent, too busy taking lovers and trying to escape her violent husband rather than assisting her son. As he grew older, Bohlmann became more anxious. He cowered under his domineering father and flailed nervously at school, trembling whenever he had to bring attention to himself, such as when he was asked to read aloud. And Bohlmann knew he was different.  In a 2005 interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Bohlmann said, QUOTE, “I was aware that I would never be the way I wanted to be.” So, in order to attempt to save himself, he sought treatment-- rather extreme treatment, it would turn out. At just sixteen years old, he voluntarily committed himself to the University Clinic in Kiel, Germany, where he underwent several rounds of electroshock therapy. After that, his doctors turned to another method of treatment-- one that was relatively new and rather in favor during the 1940s and 1950s. It was called insulin coma therapy, and patients receiving this treatment were injected with huge doses of insulin over a period of several weeks, which put them into short-term daily comas. Nothing, though, seems to help, and try as he might, his behavior stays as erratic and anxious as ever. As he grew up, he attempted to live a normal life-- as much as he could-- and even tried to hold down a steady job as a plumber’s assistant, but he was unsuccessful at maintaining a daily schedule, so eventually he quit working full-time and was only able to support himself with the occasional odd job.  All the while, though, he actively sought medical help, tranquilizers, antidepressants, ant-psychotic drugs, behavior therapy and group therapy-- anything so that he could have any kind of normalcy in his everyday life.

And for a while, it looks like it was beginning to help, at least somewhat. By the time he reached thirty years old, he was doped up on the regular, and those prescriptions were helpful in allowing him to hold down a job as a warehouse worker. And it was during this time that he also fell in love. In 1968, Bohlmann got married and he and his new wife tried desperately to have a child. But under the influence of his many medications, Bohlmann couldn’t seem to perform, and they had trouble conceiving. Frustrated, his wife would frequently dump his pills down the toilet, blaming them-- either rightly or wrongly-- for their inability to start a family. By 1974, Bohlmann had had enough. He needed something with big results. So he contacted a neurosurgeon named Dieter Muller at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, and after a lengthy consultation, Doctor Muller suggested one significant operation: a lobotomy. Today, we hear the word “lobotomy” and we shudder, knowing how this radical and even faddish surgery was sometimes abused in order to immobilize those seen as troubled or troublesome. But in 1974, it was still seen as a really good option for someone suffering as much as Bohlmann, and Muller even gave him a 75- to-80 percent chance to significant improvement, or even QUOTE “complete healing.” Keep in mind that the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wasn’t released until a year later, so though some knew of the lobotomy’s dangerous outcome, it wasn’t necessarily common knowledge. So, Hans-Joachim Bohlmann took his doctor’s advice, signed a waiver releasing the hospital from all damages, and Muller performs the procedure, drilling two holes into Bohlmann’s skull and removing a pear-sized chunk of his hypothalamus. After a few days, he is deemed sufficiently recovered from his ordeal and is discharged home, with no psychological follow-up.

You can probably already guess how well the procedure went. It was deemed an absolute failure and, according to studies undertaken by Bohlmann’s later psychiatrists and doctors, the lobotomy did nothing to help him, and in fact, actually ended up diminishing his intelligence. Instead of improving, Bohlmann’s situation further disintegrated.

Believe it or not, though, the worst was yet to come. On March 11 of 1977, Bohlmann’s wife was cleaning when she lost her balance fell out of an open window. Her injuries were so severe that she died shortly after. Her husband, then, was left alone and devastated. According to his interview in Der Spiegel, Bohlmann said, QUOTE, “I felt deceived by life. I was hit hard, and I wanted to make a furore. To me, my wife was the most expensive and dear thing. But to others, a Rembrandt was the most expensive thing.”

What Bohlmann thought, then, was that he wanted to destroy something that meant something to a lot of people. And he was always aware of the importance of art and art history. Before her death, he and his wife would frequent art museums and enjoyed the works that they saw there. Now, though, art just became a reminder of what he had lost-- the most precious thing in his life. So grieving, and with a diminished IQ and pre-existing mental conditions, Bohlmann did the only thing that he could think to do in order to cope and to release his pent-up aggression. So only two weeks after his wife’s accidental death, he walked into the Kunsthalle Hamburg, strolling casually through the galleries, with nothing but a syringe full of sulfuric acid hidden in his coat.

From what little information there is on Hans-Joachim Bohlmann, even in interviews themselves, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not he had a particular work in mind when he entered the Kunsthalle that day. Perhaps he knew what he wanted and where he wanted to do it, or maybe it was just a matter of spontaneity. Either way, the very first artwork attacked by Bohlmann was a painting by Paul Klee called The Goldfish, created by the Swiss painter in 1925. This work is pure Klee-- full of energy and wonder. A goldfish, all orange and red brushstrokes and glowing eyes, is centered in the midst of inky blue water while other fish--red and purple-- are positioned off to the sides amidst ripples and aqua-toned waves. No doubt that this work of art would have been a popular one, especially with children. Perhaps Bohlmann targeted it because it could easily draw happy families nearby, and what did happy families symbolize to Bohlmann but tragedy and failure? So with one quick motion, he grabbed the syringe of sulfuric acid and squirted it all over the canvas. The good news is that conservators were able to repair the Paul Klee painting; the bad news is that Bohlmann was able to escape the Kunsthalle without being apprehended. Upon returning home that evening, he discovered that his was a major story on the city’s evening news reports, and as journalist Beate Lakotta noted in her 2005 article on Bohlmann, quote, “He felt that he had achieved something for the very first time, and awoke later that night with the thought that he could do so much more.”

What happened next was a six-month spree of increasingly intense art attacks that led Bohlmann racing all around Germany. He made his way through Hamburg to Lubeck, where he lit an altar on fire in a cathedral; chipped away at wooden statues and gravestones in Essen, and continued his spraying of artistic masterpieces with sulfuric acid, stockpiled from pharmacies as he moved along through the countryside. As he damaged artworks, he would later note that he felt a sense of utter elation, with every increasing vandalism bringing him higher and higher. And it wasn't just the damage that thrilled him, but the public outbursts and the attention, too. As he later reported, quote, “The bigger the damage, the bigger the outcry, the more important I became. Other things could be replaced, but the work of an old master could never be managed again. And I so enjoyed that. I did not even need an antidepressant any more after this.”

It was at this point, still not having been caught, that Bohlmann felt the need to up his game. And it was also at this point that we know for sure that he began to meticulously plan his attacks. He began to consult art books to research important pieces in German art collections-- ones by famous artists, of course-- and specifically sought them out to eradicate them. And on August 16, 1977, he put his plan into action. After identifying portraits painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder of Martin Luther and his wife, Bohlmann arrived at the Lower Saxony State Museum in Hanover, Germany, and pulled out his trusty syringe. And as he would do in subsequent events, he aimed directly at the faces of the portrait’s subjects, watching them bubble and sear, knowing that the damage done would obscure the subjects and therefore diminish the painting’s purpose, let alone its monetary value. A dash of acid to a blank corner of a painting? Yeah, that would be awful. But a splash right to the center of Martin Luther’s face? Well, that’s going to make a serious impression.

p to this point, Bohlmann still hadn’t gotten caught, though the entirety of Germany must have been trying to hunt him down, and surely the European art world must have been quaking in their boots in anticipation of yet another acid attack. And they were right to be afraid, because Bohlmann wasn’t done. He wasn't anywhere near being done. About a week later, he followed up on one of his other planned victims, this time all but obliterating a portrait of Archduke Albrecht by Peter-Paul Rubens located in Düsseldorf. After a six-week break, he arrived at the Schloss Wilhelmshohe in Kassel, Germany, in early October 1977, and proceeded to attack four paintings valued at a combined total of 25 million euros of today's dollars. Two Rembrandts, including his 1656 masterpiece, Jacob’s Blessing, were subjected to sprays of acid, as well as two works by followers of Rembrandt. Jacob’s Blessing is a particular favorite amongst many Rembrandt scholars for its tender image of fatherly love, second only to Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. I suppose it's not a surprise that Bohlmann would choose to target this painting, considering his own strained and possibly abusive relationship with his own father. Again, that happy family image-- all he wanted to do was to completely eliminate it.

Interestingly enough, The castle officials reported immediately that Jacob’s Blessing received the least amount of damage, but that it was unclear at the time if the work would ever be able to be restored. The second work by Rembrandt, a self-portrait, was so marred that Rembrandt’s visage seemed like it had been completely erased. I'm happy to report that all of the paintings from the acid attack were indeed restored by incredibly talented conservators. And in fact, you can see images of the before-and-after of the Rembrandt portrait on the ArCurious website. But naturally such restorative efforts are tricky- and the success rate of attempts to hide or even repair the damages are not necessarily a given. All that was known at the time is that a literal madman was on the loose, hell-bent on as much long-term artistic damage as possible.

After the rigors of his six-month crime spree, Bohlmann found himself tired and worn. He was still elated when vandalizing and still cherished his infamy. But according to Bohlmann himself, after a while, he just really wanted to get caught. So he began getting sloppier and sloppier as he made his way back to his home in Hamburg, opting to check into hotels under his real name instead of an alias, for example, and not hiding his face under a bandage, as had been his preferred disguise. Because of all this, it didn't take long for the police to come calling. He was arrested in his apartment only days after the attack in Kassel. For his crimes, he was convicted on 17 accounts of public property damage, three cases of private property damage, and even one case of cruelty to animals when he strangely decided to poison a bevy of swans along the way. But due to his known mental health issues, he was locked up for only five years of imprisonment.

Hans-Joachim Bohlmann served his sentence in full and was released from prison in late 1982. Back on medication and with the passage of time, you’d think that he’d be at least somewhat recovered or rehabilitated for his actions, right? Well, of course not. And only too quickly did he get back up to no good. Only this time, there was a minor catch. Bohlmann was no longer allowed to set foot in a pharmacy or medical supply to buy sulfuric acid, so his typical modus operandi was out, at least for the time being. Instead, he took a detour into non-art destruction, slashing truck tires and cutting down nearly 600 trees before culminating his efforts in a vast display of arson at a construction site, where he was again arrested after inflicting nearly 65,000 euros worth of damage. This time, his prison sentence was even shorter than before-- three years, which he served until 1986.

After his release, it seems that Bohlmann tried desperately to live a more straight-and-narrow existence. Not only had he faithfully served his time, but he even paid a fee of 160 Deutschemarks for the damage he had inflicted upon the Rubens painting in Dusseldorf. But things weren't going smoothly. He was still unable to hold down a job, and because of that, he was extremely bitter at the fine-- chump change for some, but to an unemployed pensioner, it was calamitous. He needed help. So In 1987, he voluntarily committed himself to a psychiatric hospital for the second time in his life. But just as had happened earlier with his lobotomy surgery, the treatment he sought did not help him. In fact, it brought him closer to feeling the need to repeat his destructive actions. And so, while still under psychiatric care, Bohlmann found access to sulfuric acid once again, and began stockpiling it. Along the way, he purchased two small bottles of champagne. After he drank the bubbly, he poured the acid in its place, concealed the bottles on his person, and took a night train to Munich. The next morning, April 22, 1988, he walked into the city’s Alte Pinakothek, identified three paintings by the Northern Renaissance master Albrecht Durer, and splashed the contents of his champagne bottles all over them. In the midst of his dirty deed, a group of children watched him, and one finally cried out for the man to stop. At that point, it seems that a spell was broken and Bohlmann calmly put his bottle down and walked to a nearby guard to confess his actions. According to Bavaria State Art official Hubertus von Sonnenburg, Bohlmann announced as he was being arrested, QUOTE, “Within me is a psychological destruction far worse that the destruction I have done to these paintings.”

It seems that his statement finally got someone's attention as the cry for help that it certainly was. Instead of going directly to jail, the German courts opted to commit him to a medical facility in Bavaria for a minimum of two years. But when those two years ended, officials deemed that it would be unwise to release Bohlmann, who, as predicted, had shown no significant signs of improvement. A new decree was processed, noting that the patient should be made to stay in a mental hospital as long as necessary, and so he was transferred to a new facility in 1990 on the outskirts of Hamburg in a town called Ochsenzoll. And there Bohlmann stayed under constant watch and care for fifteen years-- with the exception of two very short term escapes that he made, once in 1998 and once in 2001.

There’s almost a sense of poetic justice in Bohlmann’s treatment while in Ochsenzoll. For more than half his stay, his doctors requested his participation in art therapy classes. It almost feels like a blatant way of rubbing one’s nose in his wrongs-- making an art vandal create his own art and experience it in a new way. But from all accounts, Bohlmann sincerely loved making art. In fact, he was so inspired by the act of creation that he painted pictures practically every day for nine years, creating a body of work that totaled upwards of 1500 abstract watercolor paintings, most of which bear superbly optimistic titles like Saved in Faith and The Chance. There’s something beautiful in that. Finally, more than 16 years after his arrest in Munich, he was deemed sufficiently stable enough to be released, once and for all, to the public, to attempt again to live a normal life.

Not that the police and his doctors were going to let him loose all on his own. Certainly not. Like his very own parole situation, Bohlmann was ordered to check in with his psychiatry team multiple times per week. He was regularly monitored and when anxiety kicked back in, he was placed on antidepressants, which seemed to bring him comfort. And naturally he was banned from entering any museums in the country, and every museum had a photo of him on file for purposes of keeping him at bay. When interviewed by Der Spiegel shortly after his release, he noted his interests in reading, jogging, and gardening, particularly finding joy in planting trees. I see this as an atonement for the hundreds of trees he chopped down during his crime spree in the early 1980s. About this, he reported, quote “I want to leave behind something to posterity, not only to enter history through destructive acts.”

I wish so much that I could tell you that this was how the story of Hans-Joachim Bohlmann ended. I really, really do. But alas, I can’t. Like many times before, Bohlmann was unable to live the existence he always wanted. He was a slave to his own mind and locked down by his illnesses. So that destructive need arose in him for one last time. He wanted to harm a piece of art, needed to destroy again. But with a complete ban on entering any museums in Germany and a restriction on his movements to Hamburg, his options of doing so were basically nil. But such limitations are easily gotten around, if you think about it. And so Bohlmann made the obvious choice-- he secretly left Hamburg and boarded a train bound for Amsterdam. He arrived on June 25, 2006, and walked into the world-famous Rijksmuseum without sulfuric acid, but instead had a bottle of lighter fluid. He walked up to a painting by Bartholomeus van der Helst, splashed it with the fluid, and then set it on fire. Luckily his actions were detected rather quickly, and the damage was minimal, mostly affecting only the top varnish layer and not the paint underneath. Meanwhile, Bohlmann was apprehended immediately and sentenced to an additional three years in prison. He ended up being released two years into the sentence due to good behavior, and he was released back to Hamburg, where he returned home. Hans-Joachim Bohlmann died of cancer six months later on January 19, 2009.

Discovering the life of Hans Bohlmann and his long history of art vandalism has made me seriously ponder a few different topics. First is the intense need for continual assistance and protection for those with mental health issues. But second, and most importantly for this podcast, is that vast and mysterious power of art. Art can symbolize so much for us-- beauty, wealth, stability, history, pride-- the list goes on and on, and its function is different and unique for everyone. For Hans Bohlmann, it became a painful reminder of how he felt that his life had gone wrong. To make up for his lack of control, he grabbed hold of something very public and very special-- and he took control of that in order to gain some semblance of power. It was misguided, definitely-- but I can also see his point. There is something so inherently powerful about visual art. And sometimes we find individuals who will do almost anything to secure some of that power for themselves.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast, a proud member of the Modest Podcast Network. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Production assistance for the show is provided by Kaboonki Creative. K-A-B-Double O-N-K-I dot com. For images, information, and links to our previous episodes, please visit our website at artcuriouspodcast.com. You can also find us on Facebook, and we’re posting on Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. If you like this show, please consider donating to help offset the costs associated with keeping it going, and thanks to all of you who have already donated. Don’t forget, too, that if you don’t have any change to spare that you can support us just as importantly by leaving a review and rating on iTunes. It’s a huge help. Please check back with us in two weeks, as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history.

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Transcript: ArtCurious Episode #14