Art Under Attack: iconoclasm at the Tate

Ed Noel

Topics Culture

Tate Britain’s autumn exhibition, Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, presents a sweeping display of art which has been defaced or destroyed in Britain over the past five centuries. Divided by the themes ‘religion’, ‘politics’ and ‘art’, it aims to illuminate the reasons which have driven people to tarnish or destroy such precious objects.

The exhibition begins with the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century. Heretical paintings, sculptures, statues and windows were smashed and burned in the aim of stamping out the idols of Catholicism and establishing a new church free from the Vatican’s authority. Though this section is somewhat limited to shards of stained glass, some impressive relics remain. Most notable among these is the ‘Statue of the Dead Christ’, which was discovered beneath the floor of the Mercers’ Chapel in London in 1954.

The ‘politics’ room is something of a mixed bag, largely because there doesn’t seem to have been much interesting political iconoclasm in Britain over the past 200 years. Comparisons between the toppling of equestrian statues in Newcastle in 1692 and Dublin in 1928 are a highlight, though it’s a shame the Tate couldn’t have looked internationally, perhaps to the Soviet Union, where the destruction of icons from past eras was seen as an essential part of establishing the state’s authority. In comparison to this, the defacing of paintings by the Suffragettes looks markedly inconsequential, a low point for the movement that achieved little more than getting the activists banned from the museums.

The ‘aesthetics’ section is also somewhat underwhelming. The first half is dedicated to art which has been attacked purely because the audience of the time didn’t much care for it, in some cases quite understandably. One of the flagship pieces of the exhibition is Allen Jones’s ‘Chair’ (1969), a sculpture featuring a scantily clad mannequin lying on her back with her legs slung in the air and a seat cushion strapped to the back of her thighs. It’s so hideous you can’t help but think ‘too right’ when you read about the acid attack unleashed on it in 1986.

More interestingly, the exhibition devotes some space to an interesting new movement of artists who take to defacing old art to lend them new meaning. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘One day you will no longer be loved’ (2011), a remodelling of sixteenth-century portraits of gentiles, is especially effective; the artists having purposefully aged the pieces to indicate the passing of interest in the figures they depict.

Ultimately, the broad scope of Art Under Attack means it inevitably feels jumbled and lacking in focus. While some individual pieces are illuminating, you have to wade through a lot that is just uninspiring ephemera, only on display because someone, once, decided to have a pop at it.

Ed Noel is the schools and alumni coordinator for the Debating Matters Competition.

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm is at Tate Britain until 5 January 2014.

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Topics Culture


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