in the garden


Nov 2013 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

Slashed paintings, desecrated stained glass, statues torn from their pillars - these are the monumental affronts to art that Tate Britain features in Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm (until 5 January 2014).
Examples of 500 years of violence against art from the Reformation to the postmodern Chapman brothers also include the iconoclasm of the Suffragettes, who took meat cleavers to Pre-Raphaelite paintings to emphasise that votes for women were more important than celebrating their beauty. Their targets were the Rokeby Venus by Velasquez and works by Edward Burne-Jones and John Singer Sargent.
It is certainly not the most visual or appetizing exhibition. The images are disturbing, but historically valid. As curator Tabitha Barber points out, the destruction of Christian art at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII was not a motiveless, wanton attack but an enforcement of the Second Commandment forbidding graven images. The new Protestants were concerned that beautiful religious images created in past centuries would be worshipped in their own right - and so destroyed them.
This theme runs through this part of the exhibition. Could admiring a supreme work of religious art turn to worship in itself? These early Reformists thought so but their zealous rampage through Catholic monasteries did not entirely succeed. Although some 90 per cent of medieval sculpture was destroyed, some relics were sometimes salvaged and restored and are on show here.
The Statue of the Dead Christ (c 1500-1520) was found broken but essentially whole as recently as 1954 in the Mercers’ Hall beneath its chapel floor and is on loan to the Tate for the first time.
Such state-sponsored violence targeted sculptures from the Great Screen of Winchester Cathedral, illuminated books from the British Library, and broken glass from Christ Church Oxford - actually stamped on by Canon Henry Wilkinson. Some medieval stained glass panels, c 1180, were taken from Canterbury Cathedral’s windows and are shown beside Thomas Johnson’s mid-17th-century painting illustrating the Puritans at work. Even the last prayer written by Charles I, pleading for divine forgiveness for his killers, was scrawled through by Portuguese inquisitors who seized it from a ship which entered Portuguese waters. (Certainly less forgiving was his son, Charles II, who tracked down and brutally killed those guilty of his regicide.) A 19th-century response came in staunch monarchist Frederick Duleep Singh’s upside-down portrait of Oliver Cromwell.
More recently, violence against public art became political. We can see fragments of the statue of William III and Nelson’s Pillar, both bombed in Dublin after the Irish troubles in 1928 and 1936. With state monuments a traditional target of political unrest, it is surprising that there are no photographs of our own most powerful contemporary image - the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad.
Some iconoclasts are motivated by personal or aesthetic rage and some are convinced that defacing art, even in the Chapman brothers’ reproductions, is an act of renewal. Feminists even attacked Allen Jones’s sexy Chair - a nonchalant near-nude in high-heeled boots and black gloves in a yoga position strapped to the seat of a chair.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Copenhagen revisited
next article:Art Notes (review)