The Genteel
March 5, 2021


Diego Velázquez, 'Venus at Her Toilette' (1647-51) slashed by Mary Richardson. "Source:"

The destruction of a culture's symbols or monuments (whether religious or artistic) is often referred to as 'iconoclasm'. The word itself derives from the combination of Greek words, 'eikon' and 'klastes', meaning 'image breaking'. Within modern times, this is often considered to be a positive description for innovative pieces of abstract artwork - think Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.

However, its origins are much darker. Throughout history, physical attacks on art for either religious, political or aesthetic reasons have defined the future of an entire culture. Such malevolence can be found within Tate Britain's riveting new exhibition, "Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm" in London.

Madonna and Child (c.1475-90)

Madonna and Child (c.1475-90).

As co-curator, Tabitha Barber, writes on the gallery's website, "When putting the exhibition together, we wanted to find out what compels people to carry out attacks on art and whether these motives have changed through the course of 500 years."

The Destruction of Dissolution

As soon as you step through the exhibition doors the censorious dark charcoal gallery walls envelop you. The first part of "Art Under Attack", which is ordered chronologically, is accentuated by this sombre darkness; the backlit artefacts stare out from the shadows like wounded survivors from a savage war.

Presented within the room were decapitated and handless limestone figurines of Christ, as well as symbolically defaced oil-on-canvas religious paintings. This array of attacked ideological images told of the crown-sanctioned destruction that took place in the years 1536-40 during the Dissolution of Monasteries.

Related: The Floating World

The systematic violence against art was a policy pursued by King Henry VIII in his quest to establish himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England and overthrow the power and moral corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. It was a common practice for the royalist foot soldiers to score out the eyes and faces of religious artworks in order to prevent a direct path of aesthetic communication between image and viewer. This was clear acknowledgement that such vivid and realistic representations contained the power of ideas; and that by breaking the image, the idea could be broken too.

The Recovery of Restoration

When you consider how much pre-Reformation art has been lost, the remaining fragments are like precious fossils, giving clues to the range and depth of the English art history that has vanished in the carnage. In a press release that accompanied the launch of the exhibition, Barber pointed to the importance of the work, saying: "It's a difficult statistic to quantify but historians have estimated that over 90 per cent of pre-Reformation imagery has been lost and much of what remains is in a mutilated state."

The Statue of the Dead Christ (c. 1500-20)

The Statue of the Dead Christ (c.1500-20).

The Statue of the Dead Christ (c.1500-20) is a particularly telling piece of iconoclasm to survive the mass destruction that occurred during the sixteenth century. Found below the bomb-blasted floorboards of London's Mercers' Hall chapel in 1954, the piece has lost its crown of thorns, arms and lower legs. While representing an attempt by its attackers to neutralise the power of the image, it now serves only to empower it.

Related: The Monuments Men

Another striking exhibit piece was created from the recovered fragments of a stained glass window - presumably smashed by a soldier's pike in the sixteenth century - that had once graced Yorkshire's Rievaulx Abbey. The new window, carefully crafted by piecing together the disparate remnants of the religious scene, was strikingly emboldened by luminescent back lighting. This piece nodded to the transformative power that the deconstruction of art possesses and acts as a precursor to the Destruction of Art Symposium (DAIS) 1960s art movement that is showcased later in the exhibition.

Politics and Public Space

The dark charcoal grey walls are replaced by a softer pastel shade in the next section of the exhibition, in which the relationship between iconoclasm, politics and the public space is explored.

Political upheaval and change are often accompanied by symbolic statue breaking; the toppling of something solid, such as a three-dimensional and representational image of a deposed leader, is potent in its symbolism and an act of pure iconoclasm. Only last Sunday, angry anti-government protestors in Ukraine tore down the statue of their former Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin. It seems little has changed in terms of how art is used as a means of communicating political unrest. 

Christ before Pilate (c.1400–25).

In the "Art Under Attack" exhibition, the huge bronze decapitated 'dead eye' head of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century politician and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger was eerily alluring close up. However, what really drew me in was the iconoclast narrative behind the Suffragette movement. In 1913 and 1914, the Suffragettes embarked on a militant campaign of attacking art to affect political change and help win women the vote.

Related: Public Art: The Saviour of the Cities?

While the attacks provoked public anger and outrage at the time, these iconoclastic actions were an overtly political act of defiance. In a similar fashion to the iconoclasm of the Reformation, the majority of the pieces targeted by the Suffragettes were those that provoked an idealisation of inanimate objects within their art.

One such painting to provoke such an extreme reaction was Diego Velázquez's revered Venus at Her Toilette, which was subjected to attack by militant suffragette Mary Richardson who slashed at its canvas repeatedly with a butcher's cleaver in 1914. Claiming the destruction as a defensive measure for the treatment of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, the history of this event was brought into a kind of surreal 'real time' during the exhibition as I heard Richardson justify her mutilation of the Venus in an original 1961 radio interview. Actions speak louder than words, as they say.

The Art of Destruction: Part Two will be published on Monday, 16th December 2013.

The "Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm" exhibition is on display at Tate Britain from 2 October 2013 - 5 January 2014. It is the first exhibition of its kind. 



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