Attack on the “Plumed Hat”

Courtesy National Gallery of Art; Chester Dale Collection

Susan Burns, the woman who violently tore Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women off the wall in April, was back at Washington’s Nation Gallery on August 5th, this time raging against Matisse’s 1919 painting “The Plumed Hat.”

According to police, she walked up to the work and slammed it against the wall, injuring its $250 frame. The $2.5 million painting, encased in a plexiglass box, was left unharmed. Ms. Burns was promptly arrested and charged with unlawful entry, contempt, destruction of property and attempted theft.

From ArtLyst:

This woman should be barred from entering museums in the future. There seems to be a problem obtaining an exclusion order and this has led to the well dressed Ms Burns slipping through security. The attack raises questions about security at the museum in general with the protection of some of the world’s most famous works of art an issue.

Harsh, ArtLyst. Harsh. Attacks of this kind are highly uncommon and Ms. Burns’ mental state is questionable. She was indeed barred from the museum following the Tahitian Women attack. What really makes me queazy in this situation isn’t Burns but the media’s focus on why she dislikes those two paintings:

And from Gawker:

Given that the Gauguin depicts two women standing around with their boobs hanging out, it almost sort of makes sense that Burns would regard such artwork as “evil” and “homosexual” and want to destroy it. But there’s nothing overtly homosexual or naked about the Matisse—it’s just a portrait of some chick in a hat. Maybe Burns harbors prejudice against the French? She probably still uses “Freedom Fries.”

From Washington City Paper:

Look, we all get mad. But the thing is, we don’t really know what set Burns off this time. During the Gauguin brouhaha, Burns told the cops she felt that the Post-Impressionist was “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,” she said in April.
But “The Plumed Hat” is just a woman wearing a frilly hat—and she’s fully clothed, too. No bare-breasted women embracing here.
Then again, the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton did feature a bevy of outlandish millinery. Perhaps Burns has been tormented by the most nagging question since the royal nuptials: Just what the hell was that on Princess Beatrice’s head?

Mike Debonis at the Washington Post said:

OK, so clearly Burns has some issues with the human body, modesty, freedom of expression, and such, as well as some paranoia issues. What I don’t get is what problem she possibly could have had with the Matisse…
There are other Matisses in the gallery that I thought she would have preferred to attack.
Perhaps she hates the French? Fauvism? Plumed hats?
“Maybe she just really hates art,” one police officer posited to Wax.

Ms. Burns’ claims following the Tahitian Women incident– “I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.”– not to mention the fact that she has been transferred to a mental health facility, give us some clue that a mere dislike of French painting, Fauvism, fascinators, or art in general is not the problem here. It is perhaps amusing to think that someone could so passionately hate any of those things that they would feel compelled to attack a painting, but I cannot help feeling that such amusement is at the expense of Ms. Burns and trivializes the emotional power of art.


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