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From Botched Restoration to Selfie Destruction: 5 of the Worst Art Fails

If you think the art world is full of sophisticated blue bloods standing around in fancy gowns and drinking champagne ... you're not wrong. But the most interesting stories happen when everything goes wrong.

1. Vulva with a Vengeance: Making Love by Fernando de la Jara in Tübingen, Germany

If you didn’t take a photo in a massive stone vagina, did you even study abroad? An American exchange student in Germany found himself in over his head when he entered this gargantuan sculpture, probably seeking a cute social media post with some artistic female anatomy. Forget your basic travel photos with the bikinis, booze, and monuments— #OOTDs and #TBTs are so overdone. Who can blame the fella for trying to spice up his Insta feed with some rock solid hoohah?

Unfortunately, the student found himself uncomfortably wedged inside the vulva, a fiasco that necessitated a 911 call. That's right— our adventurous friend required professional help because he got too frisky with a statue.

To the rescue were twenty-two firefighters in five separate emergency vehicles along with a disgruntled team of paramedics. They dutifully pulled the student free from the statue, because apparently walking away and saying "Ha ha, you got stuck in a cooter" would be unprofessional.

Overkill for one man who got intimate with the art? Perhaps— neither fanny nor student were harmed. This calls to mind an intense round of "would you rather:" call 911 because you plunged feet-first into the mammoth lady bits, or actually need the paramedics for a more run-of-the-mill predicament?

Still, you can bet there were some awkward letters home. Study abroad is stressful enough with the language barrier. “Getting stuck in an anatomical installation" is just one more worry on a long list of pre-departure concerns.

2. #SelfieGoneWrong: Statue of Saint Michael, National Museum of Ancient Art

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Does anyone remember a time before selfies? Even as someone in my twenties, I have a harder time entertaining that thought than I do imagining that dinosaurs once roamed the earth. But who would want to remember the horrible, horrible struggle of having to turn a clunky digital camera around (or even worse, a *gasp* disposable camera), while holding it in one hand and haphazardly clicking the button in hopes of yielding something even remotely Myspace worthy. It harkens back to other trying times, like before central heating or when plagues decimated whole populations. Thankfully, technology made the whole thing a lot easier with the advent of the front-facing camera and—poof—selfie production erupted more explosively than Mount Vesuvius, becoming a landmark outlet for self-expression.

But it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. The wounded individual in question? A statue of St. Michael at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal. Although (unfortunately), no one caught the act on video, it’s been reported that an eager visitor who felt magnetically drawn to the statue turned around to take a selfie with it. Apparently forgetting that this 18th century statue was anything other than just “one of the boys,” he backed up to nestle himself into the saints outstretched arms while imagining appropriate captions and hashtags in his head. I think we all know by now what happened next—

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   Me getting ready for da club vs. Me in the car on the way home

The visitor was rudely informed of the fragile nature of his new bestie as St. Michael toppled over and shattered into pieces on the floor in a state so severe that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men didn’t even get out of bed to assess the situation.

I’m pretty sure the offender booked it out of there after that but not before whipping out his camera phone to snap the pic of the aftermath. No word on whether the selfie turned out well, but he made sure to document St. Michael’s shattered remains on Facebook with the caption, “That’s what you get for free entrances on the first Sunday of every month.” I’m side-eyeing everyone who “liked” that photo as I write this.

The enthusiasm is great and all, I guess, but maybe next time we should remember to face towards the artwork while taking glamour shots. Don’t even even get me started on the college student who amputated a Drunken Satyr statue in pursuit of an epic lap dance.

3. Parenting Fail: Angel is Waiting / Broken Angel by Shelly Xue at the Shanghai Museum of Glass

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There’s something to say about human nature when it comes to respecting the universal ‘no touching’ rule in art museums. Even the most seasoned of museum-goers struggle to avoid asking the question, “I wonder what this priceless piece of art feels like?” However, where most people stifle their tactile urge, a Shanghai mother of two decided it’d be best if her two children got up-close and personal with Shelly Xue’s Angel is Waiting as captured in this shocking surveillance video.

You know what they say about looking at trainwrecks.

Now look, I don’t fault the kids here; they didn’t know any better. One seems to be practicing his sick martial arts move while the other lifts the piece off the wall in what I can only imagine is part of his weight lifting routine. What frustrates me about this particular incident is the parent watching. Everyone viewing the surveillance tape - even without the context - knows what’s about to happen. Yet, even behind a rope barrier within a ‘no touching’ zone at a museum filled with f***ing glass, this parent of the year was oblivious until the very last second.

I've been there myself.

Adding another layer of cringe is both the construction of the piece and its meaning. Angel is Waiting was dedicated to Xue’s newborn daughter and the entire piece took 27 months of glass-blowing to create. The bright spot of this glorious display of incompetence was Xue’s reaction. Instead of repairing the piece, Xue decided to leave the piece as is and rename it to the more appropriate Broken Angel along with a monitor next to the piece playing the surveillance tape on repeat. It’s unclear whether the museum punished the mother or her children but it’s clear someone needs a class on museum rules and perhaps the finer points of parenting.

4. Art theft fail: Pretoria Art Museum, South Africa

When buying a car, you must first ask yourself: if you were robbing a poorly secured art museum, what size of painting would you like to be able to fit inside? Here at Sartle, we recommend compacts for still-lifes and vans for landscapes or portraits. For anything larger than that, we suggest purchasing an RV and painting it in camouflage for that inconspicuous, "I'm just here to look at some art" aura.

Unfortunately, the three thieves who robbed the Pretoria Art Museum in South Africa in November 2012 did not read this very useful advice, or else they would have driven something more substantial to their heist than a Toyota Avanza. After paying the museum admission fee of $2.25 and pretending to be a lecturer and his two students, the robbers held the meager security crew at gunpoint and nabbed their chosen pieces. They left with five paintings collectively worth $2 million, including Fishing Boats by Irma Stern.

The sixth piece, however, was too large for the Avanza to handle, so they dumped it and—perhaps angry that the artist should dare paint something larger than a mass-market mini-van—almost drove over the darn thing. At $1.5 million, though, Irma Stern’s Two Malay Musicians was also the most valuable.

All five paintings were recovered from underneath a bench in a cemetery over 700 miles away. On the plus side, the museum gets to keep one of their most treasured pieces. On the not-so-bright-side, the robbery points out the dire faults in government security allotted for protecting cultural sites from thieves with soccer-mom getaway vehicles. Go away, Barbara, now’s not the time.

Actually...never mind. The mini-van will do just fine. 

5. Last but not least: Ecce Homo in Borja, Spain

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How can we forget the old faithful of art fails?

A word to the wise—if you aren’t a professional in the field of art conservation and restoration, never attempt to do the following:

  • Brag about your restoration skills to your friends

  • Write a text about art restoration

  • Restore a 16th century fresco

Eighty-one year old Cecilia Giménez—amateur painter and inhabitant of the Spanish town, Misericordia Sanctuary in Borja—blithely disregarded these widely known rules in an extremely ill-advised yet well-intentioned attempt to paint over the flaking fresco. These events took over the internet in the worst way possible when they unfolded, yet time has shown that the infamous “whoopsie” moment wasn’t all bad.

The fresco has since become a sort of pilgrimage site for internet trolls and bored tourists looking for a laugh and has enhanced tourism in Misericordia with a staggering 57,000 tourists visiting the site in the year following the events. Looks like Cecilia turned out to be a godsend for this small town. The image has traveled around making cameos in the most unlikely of places:

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like on candles

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And pop art inspired t-shirt designs

Let’s just hope that no one takes this as a good business model.

By Lara, Austin, Claudia, and Rose

Lara Heard

Contributor