Gauguin masterpiece unharmed after attack at National Gallery


Merl Ross, a fan of painter Paul Gauguin, looks at an empty display after "Two Tahitian Women" painting was attacked Friday April 1, 2011 at the National Gallery of Art of in Washington, D.C. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 4, 2011

The Paul Gauguin masterpiece that was attacked Friday by a woman at the National Gallery of Art “sustained no damage,” the museum said Monday, after conservators examined the canvas.

The painting, owned by the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art in New York and valued at $80 million, is expected to be back on view at 10 a.m. Tuesday, the gallery announced.

The work, “Two Tahitian Women,” is part of the exhibit “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” which opened in late February.

A museum visitor, identified in documents filed with the D.C. Superior Court as Susan Burns, 53, of Alexandria, grabbed the painting by its frame and attempted to pull it off the wall. She then hit the painting, which was protected by a plexiglass shield, with her right fist, the court papers said.

Burns, who was handcuffed and detained, has been charged with attempted theft in the second degree.


’Two Tahitian Women’ by Paul Gauguin. The painting, on display at the National Gallery of Art, was attacked by a woman visitor on April 1. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

According to court papers, Burns told an investigator: “I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosex­ual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned. I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.”

The painting, completed in 1899, depicts two women; one is bare-breasted, the other has a blue cloth covering one breast.

The court papers allege that Burns “did injure, break, and destroy certain property, that is, fixtures holding the ‘Two Tahitian Women’ to the wall as well as the painting’s frame.” The property destroyed was valued at less than $200.

According to a witness, Pam­ela Degotardi of New York, the woman tried to pull the painting from the wall while screaming, “This is evil.”

“She was really pounding it with her fists,” Degotardi said. “It was like this weird surreal scene that one doesn’t expect at the National Gallery.”

Burns is scheduled for a “mental observation hearing” Tuesday, the court documents say. She has been arrested in the past on charges dating back to 1998, according to Virginia court rec­ords. She was convicted of assaulting an officer in 2005 and served more than two years in jail. In 2006, she was arrested for conspiring to commit a carjacking and served more than six months in jail.

Sharon Weathers, the attorney defending Burns, declined to comment on the Gauguin case.

The National Gallery is the only U.S. venue for “Gauguin: Maker of Myth.” The paintings are borrowed from a variety of sources. Deborah Ziska, a spokeswoman for the gallery, said the plexiglass covering on the art follows the practice of the lending institution.

Elyse Topalian, vice president for communications at the Met, said, “It is a conservation measure the Metropolitan Museum takes for many outgoing loans.” The two paintings on either side of the attacked art were unprotected.

The exhibition covers six rooms over two floors in the gallery’s East Building. Five uniformed security guards are posted in the exhibit, and each room has two surveillance cameras.

A gallery official who saw the video said Burns crossed through the first two rooms and exhibited no suspicious actions. After passing a security officer, she walked to the “Two Tahitian Women” and began pounding it. She grabbed the frame and pulled from the bottom before she was detained.

The show has had 55,832 visitors as of Friday. It is on view until June 5.

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