The Thinker Vandalized

At approximately 1:00 a.m. on March 24, 1970, a bomb irreparably damaged the Cleveland Museum of Art’s version of Rodin’s The Thinker. The bomb itself had been placed on a pedestal that supported the enlargement and had the power of about three sticks of dynamite.

No one was injured in the subsequent blast, but the statue’s base and lower legs were destroyed. The remaining sections of the cast were blown backward to form a “plume” at the base, and the entire statue was knocked to the ground. It was reported that this attack was undertaken by a radical political group, perhaps as a commentary on the continuing military action in Vietnam or the elitism of the American government.

Regardless, no one was ever arrested or charged with the destruction. However, the incident highlighted several conservation issues related directly to artistic intent. Since the piece was so dramatically damaged, the museum was unsure how to proceed. One idea was to create an entirely new cast to replace the damaged work. Another idea was to restore the sculpture by recasting elements of Rodin’s original. Finally, however, it was decided that the statue should not be repaired, but placed outside the museum in its damaged condition.


Conservation Issues

The museum’s large cast of The Thinker has a unique history that highlights some of the ethical and practical issues inherent in the field of conservation. Cast under Rodin’s direct supervision, the large version of The Thinker was purchasesd from the artist by Clevelander Ralph T. King who donated it to the museum in 1917. First displayed in the museum’s rotunda, it was soon moved outside, to the museum’s south entrance. Once the sculpture was outdoors, its surface began to corrode almost immediately, changing the color and appearance of the metal. Over the years, hand rubbing, wax, and commercial oil preparations were used to protect it. Then, in 1970, the sculpture was severely damaged by a dynamite explosion. According to the Cleveland Police Department, this act of vandalism was committed by a cell of the politically radical Weather Underground that was operating in Cleveland at the time.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the museum considered three options: 1) obtain and display a replacement cast; 2) repair the sculpture by welding on newly cast sections to replace the areas that were damaged; 3) mount and display the damaged sculpture. All three options were problematic in some way. With the first, a new cast of the complete sculpture would be removed historically from the original, which was so closely connected with the artist. A recast would in essence be a reproduction. With the second, distortions caused by the dynamite blast would have made it difficult to align the replacement sections with those original sculpture. The third option was chosen largely because it preserved what was left of Rodin’s original work and because the damaged sculpture would bear vivid witness to a period of political unrest in the United States during the Vietnam War. Like the museum’s other outdoor sculptures, The Thinker now receives routine maintenance twice a year. It is washed and rewaxed each spring and fall.

An interesting comparison can be made with the museum’s small version of The Thinker. Also cast in the late 19th century under Rodin’s direct supervision, this work has remained indoors, in the controlled environment of the museum, and is in excllent condition. The original surface and artistic intention have been preserved.