Review: Art Under Attack
Call someone an ‘iconoclast’ today and it’s a compliment. Maverick, rebel, revolutionary. It’s been applied admiringly to everyone from Ai Weiwei to Michael Gove. But it wasn’t always a positive term. It comes from the Greek ‘eikon’ for image and ‘klastes’ for breaker, and the Tate Britain’s new exhibition Art Under Attack vividly charts these art-breakers all the way from Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries to vandalism of modern art pieces.
The exhibition takes viewers through a chronological story of iconoclasm, each room presenting a more recent aspect of Britain’s history where what some viewed as defacement or vandalism and others interpreted as political or aesthetic statements peppered the art of the time.
And the most striking aspect of this collection is the detailed level of religious and political devotion of each iconoclast. Royal orders in the 16th century meant the destruction of all prayers and images to Thomas Becket so as to destroy the cult of this former Archbishop of Canterbury. Fragments from his shrine were displayed alongside a prayer book with the prayer to Becket dutifully cut out and discarded.
Similarly as meticulous are the graffitied coins of the Victorian and Georgian eras. One Victoria copper penny from 1841 pictures the queen smoking a pipe, with ‘I love’ carefully etched into her hair and ‘shag’ scrawled on her face. Apparently this cheeky engraving may have been a response to the queen having just had two children in quick succession. A halfpenny depicting George III carries an even stronger message – a noose has been carved in around his neck.
It’s these small rebellions that stand out. A witty example in the ‘Politics and Public Space’ room is a dark, solemn portrait of Oliver Cromwell hung upside down by the monarchist Prince Frederick Duleep Singh in his collection in Norfolk. Though a hilariously childish act, it is poignant considering Cromwell in real life was hanged the right way up.
Oliver Cromwell - British School 17th Century c. Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Tate Britain
Another amusing and telling detail is the ‘Stonyhurst Salt’, a salt cellar made of recycled religious objects from Catholic shrines and church plate, and many former chalices were sold on as secular wine goblets.
Yet artefacts of intense drama characterise the exhibition, with the dissolution of the monasteries providing some of the most arresting vestiges of disrespect. Christ in Majesty, a 13th century statue found at Rievaulx Abbey (dissolved in 1538), has had his head lopped off; anti-papal propagandist painting A Protestant Allegory depicts four stoic evangelists mechanically stoning the Pope. Similarly, a painting from the radical Protestant reformation period under Edward VI shows the sweetly smiling boy king crushing the poor old Pontiff, crumpled pathetically beneath his throne.
Shattered fragments of stained glass windows destroyed at the end of the English Civil War from Christ Church Cathedral in suspiciously royalist Oxford have been stuck back together like a religious history rendered via illuminated crazy paving. The Dean of the college ordered the offending imagery to be removed. An obedient canon stamped on the windows and they were not discovered until 1998 in a coal bunker on the site.
Another subversive slice of history is told via The Rokeby Venus, a 17th century painting of a female nude. This was attacked by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914, who slashed at the canvas with a meat chopper, during a fervent period of suffragette attacks on artwork and gallery windows.
Art Under Attack works well as a history exhibition, but becomes a little lost when it reaches the modern age. On show are contemporary art pieces that have been defaced by visitors, for example Carl Andre’s pile of bricks Equivalent VIII, which was covered by a furious onlooker with blue food dye in 1976, protesting at the fact it was paid for by public funds.
Then there’s the Chair, a seat made in 1969 out of a female mannequin in a compromising position, which was covered in paint stripper by a feminist protestor on International Women’s Day in 1986.
The curators try and create a rather lofty narrative that the protestors were “responding to aesthetics”, when really their motives are basic, political and angry – rather like the suffragettes and anti-papists of history were, part spurred on by the zeitgeist, part by gut belief. In iconoclasm, politics trumps art.