During the run of an exhibition at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, Russia, a vandal decided that an Anna Leporskaya work from the 1930s was missing something—and proceeded to add eyes to two of the figures in the painting with a ballpoint pen.
On December 7, some visitors became aware of the attack on the Leporskaya painting, which is titled Three Figures (1932–34) and owned by the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and told the art center’s staff about it. However, according to the Art Newspaper, management of the cultural space waited two weeks to reported the attack to the police. The center reportedly didn’t provide images from the video surveillance that would have been available to the museum.
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Once the damage was reported, law enforcement agencies refused to open a criminal case because there were no signs of a crime as defined by the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Since the image did not look fundamentally different, and since the painting was no longer in Yekaterinburg at that time (it had returned to Moscow for restoration by the time police got involved), the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation sent a complaint to the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office about the refusal to initiate a criminal case. When asked about the subject, Alexander Drozdov, executive director of the Yeltsin Center, said, “We were not even slightly puzzled when police decided not to open the case, because based on their damage assessment there was no legal grounds for [an investigation]. They say ‘no,’ you obey. We’re law-abiding citizens.”
According to reports by various outlets, the vandal may be one of the museum’s employees, a person known as Dmitry N., who served as the former head of the security service of the Yeltsin Center. He was fired in December 2021 immediately after the incident. Drozdov denied those reports, saying that none of the museum’s workers were involved in the attack. “Definitely the former chief of security team has nothing to do with the incident,” he added. “He resigned earlier and was staying in the hospital at the time of this crazy ‘performance.’ So he has an alibi.”
The canvas was inspected the day after the damage by a restorer at the State Tretyakov Gallery and returned to the museum. The State Tretyakov Gallery had had the work insured by the AlfaStrakhovanie company for 75 million rubles ($972,000). Restoration for the work is ongoing; the entire process is expected to cost approximately 250 thousand rubles ($32,000). The damage can be undone without permanent damage to the work, as the executive director confirmed to us: “the ‘injuries’ were not dramatic and can be (or even have been already) undone without permanent damage.” After the vandalism, the rest of the works in the exhibition that included the Leporskaya painting, “The world as non-objectivity. The birth of a new art,” were placed beneath protective screens. The museum’s security protocols were also reviewed after the attack.
Leporskaya (1900–82) was a Soviet artist known for being the designer of the USSR pavilion at the World Exhibition in New York (1939) and the gravestone of Alexander Nevsky (1942). A student and later a secretary of Kazemir Malevich, she designed buildings and exhibitions in addition to creating paintings. Her works can be found in the State Tretyakov Gallery, the Russian Museum of Decorative, Applied, and Folk Arts in Moscow, the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, and private collections.
This attack on Three Figures joins a long list of vandalized works of art in Russia that includes Ilya Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and His Son, which was knifed first in 1913 and then again 2018, when a man drunk on vodka stabbed it with a stanchion. In 1997, Alexander Brener, a Russian performance artist, spray-painted Malevich’s White Supremacist Cross with a green dollar sign; in 1985, Bronius Maigys poured sulfuric acid on Rembrandt’s Danaë and cut the canvas with a knife; and in 2016 vandals added painted a Soviet-era star to make it look like Patrick from the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.