Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm (Tate Britain)

Statue of the Dead Christ The Mercers’ Company

Statue of the Dead Christ
The Mercers’ Company

There are many ‘Histories’ to destroying British art, perhaps too many for this expansive exhibition of over 500 years. The main problem is that works with similar or contrasting messages are isolated from one another, and the chronological narrative is confused by redundant thematic subtitles. Starting at the Reformation, the exquisite early-sixteenth century Mercers’ Christ was a foremost victim: its agonised face and bleeding body – on Christ’s left neck a solitary vein protrudes with a dying delicacy – provoked ire from the iconoclasts. Four saints have been viciously scratched out of a late-fifteenth century painted screen, and in a rare 1380-1400 altarpiece the kneeling figures’ faces have also been attacked. To deface a portrait, it seems, is universally a stark act of iconoclasm. An English monarchist’s upturning of Oliver Cromwell’s portrait would work well, then, with the Chapman brothers’ graffiti on three Victorian portraits. There is an unexplored contrast to make between treating an image or portrait seriously – and defacing it seriously – and being content to scribble on it or turn it upside down. Otherwise, the Chapmans’ puerility baffles after such vigorous iconoclasm.

The Reformation’s campaign was to destroy the Image and replace it with the Word. This is shown well. A c.1500 Rood image of Christ was later whitewashed and scrawled with Biblical text (which would work well with Kate Davis’s beautiful 2012 palimpsests). In bold defiance of Protestant logocentrism the Little Gidding Harmony’s c.1635-40 beautiful book crams its pages with collaged images and complementary texts.

Another highlight is John Singer Sargent’s 1913 portrait of Henry James, thrice slashed by Mary Wood with a meat cleaver. But the Suffragettes attacked art differently from the Puritans, less for what it depicted, more for its status as the ‘cultural heritage’ of a patrician political establishment – a very different kind of iconoclasm. The exhibition tries to reconcile and generalise when really it should distinguish. If Wood’s attack on the Sargent was random, why was the attack on three painted late-Victorian ‘beautiful women’ a ‘symbolic act’, in the curators’ words?

Michael Wilkinson’s 2013 parody of the Taliban’s destruction of videotapes reminds us that censorship is still rampant. Yet censorship is different to iconoclasm and if there is a grey line between the two, it’s not until the penultimate piece in the show that we encounter it. Wilkinson might work well with Charles I’s autobiographical Eikon Basilike, redacted by Portuguese inquisitors, which languishes in Room 4.

Allen Jones, Chair 1969  Tate © Allen Jones

Allen Jones, Chair 1969
Tate © Allen Jones

Puritan-like objections to art resound throughout British history – how often it’s said Britain has a culture of words and not paintings – and this merits a lot more attention. The three general themes ‘Religion’, ‘Politics’ and ‘Aesthetics’ are vague and confusing. How were attacks on Allen Jones’s salacious 1969 ‘Chair’ ‘Aesthetic’ and not ‘Political’ (or feminist)? If it were both more relaxed and more precise about how attacking art can mean different things to different people at different times, this exhibition could go from an iconoclastic plethora of strands to a coherent map of pluralities.

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