On March 24, 1970, at around 12:45 a.m., a powerful bomb was detonated on the steps of the Cleveland Museum of Art, toppling from its base Auguste Rodin's 900-pound work of art, The Thinker. The destruction was extensive: the explosion destroyed the base of the statue and the lower portion of the figure's legs, contorting and expanding several areas of the sculpture. Ultimately, no one was charged in the crime, but many suspected Weatherman, an American underground radical organization.
Faced with an unprecedented instance of museum iconoclasm—the deliberate destruction of a monument for religious or political purposes—the then-director Sherman Lee had to respond cautiously.
Lee's initial reactions seemed to indicate he favored repairing the statue, as he explained to the Cleveland Press the day of the bombing, "I hate to make a definite promise . . . but I think it is very probable that it will be back in place eventually."1
The following day, Lee stated that there was "a strong probability" that the statue would be restored at a cost "in the neighborhood of $20,000 or $25,000. I have no idea how long it will take. Six months, a year. It will have to be shipped to Paris. The repair will be done by the bronze caster who works for the Musée Rodin, if we can get him."2
The same interview points out that Lee rejected the idea of replacing the statue: "Although it is conceivable that with the consent of the Musée Rodin an entirely new six-foot 'Thinker' could be cast to replace the damaged Cleveland statue, Lee dismissed the costly possibility of replacing the original created under Rodin's eye with one of present-day manufacture."3
Privately, however, Lee, along with Edward Henning, curator of modern art, and Frederick Hollendonner, objects conservator, seemed to be contemplating a variety of treatment opinions in consultation with noted art historians and conservators:
Essentially, the museum studied three treatment options: (1) take molds from other original Thinkers and make a replacement cast; (2) make a cast from molds and cut the newly cast sculpture up to replace damaged areas of the Cleveland sculpture; or (3) mount the damaged sculpture and essentially do no restoration.4
Less than a week after the incident, editorials began appearing in the Cleveland Press suggesting that The Thinker be put "back in front of the Art Museum just as it is, its feet shattered by some witless fool's bomb." One opinion rationalized that the "Venus de Milo is no less renowned because she has no arms. Beyond that, the damaged Thinker would stand as a symbol of something terribly wrong in our society today, violence and destruction, without cause or purpose."5
Lee agreed: "It's an excellent idea. It will remain on the pedestal for about two or three weeks," but he carefully added, "or until it's shipped off to be repaired."6
Three months later, after conferring with Rodin experts Athena Tacha Spear and Alexandre Rosenberg, Lee announced that the museum had canceled any plans for repairs. The museum concluded that The Thinker could not be
put . . . back into acceptable original condition. Not only is there the obvious damage to the lower section, there is also warping of other parts and a breaking apart of seams . . . If we did repair for it, what we would have in effect would be a new cast . . We would rather have the original cast. Despite its damage, we feel it is still a significant and moving work of art.7
One's first reaction is to lament that all the king's horses and all the king's men cannot put The Thinker back together again. But is it not even a more significant work, damaged as it is? No one can pass the shattered green man without asking himself what it tells us about the violent climate of the U.S.A. in the year 1970. It is more than just a work of art now.8
David Franklin, the museum's current director, elaborated on the decision, explaining, "It was decided that that vandalism in itself could become part of the piece, part of its history, part of the history of Cleveland."9
Nearly 45 years after the bombing, The Thinker crowns the museum steps. Through tactful preservation, the museum's conservation staff has stabilized the sculpture's condition, ensuring that it continues to evoke meaning. Upon his 1974 visit to Cleveland as a member of the British delegation, Jack Woodham summed up his own feelings on the remounted statue: "They may have ruined his legs, but they didn't ruin the spirit behind it."10
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Notes1. "Museum's 'Thinker' Toppled by Bomb," Cleveland Press, March 24, 1970.
2. "Gloom Cast on Museum by Bombing of 'Thinker,'" The Plain Dealer, March 24, 1970.
3. "'Thinker' Hit by Bomb," The Plain Dealer, March 24, 1970.
4. Bruce Christman, "Twenty-Five Years after the Bomb: Maintaining Cleveland's 'The Thinker,'" Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 37 (1998): 179.
5. "Let the 'Thinker's' Wounds Show," Cleveland Press, March 26, 1970.
6. "Damaged 'Thinker' to Stand as Symbol of Destruction," Cleveland Press, March 28, 1970.
7. Dick Wooten, "Museum's Damaged 'Thinker' Won't Be Repaired," Cleveland Press, July 15, 1970.
8. George E. Condon, "Some Thoughts on the 'Thinker,'" The Plain Dealer, April 22, 1970.
9. Mysteries at the Museum. Travel Channel, October 11, 2011. Television.
10. George Heinz, "Members of the British Delegation Examine . . . ," The Plain Dealer, May 24, 1974.