-This exhibition is now closed-
Mounting an exhibition about the destruction of artwork has one inevitable challenge; many of the relevant pieces have either been destroyed or restored to their original state. Unsurprisingly, then, Art Under Attack at Tate Britain is not rich in the quantity of artworks on show, despite certain highlights. Instead, the exhibition is primarily a marvellously insightful history lesson on the crucial role iconoclasm has played in the past 500 years of British cultural history.
The opening section of the exhibition, dedicated to the religious iconoclasm of the Reformation, puts into stark relief the extreme destruction wrought on centuries of masterful art and the paucity of what was left behind. Paintings, sculptures, decorative structures and stained-glass windows were all torn down to symbolise the revolutionary transfer of power away from the Roman Pope. The damaged artefacts that remain, such as the decapitated statue Christ in Majesty from Rievaulx Abbey, testify to the apparent zeal with which the pious turned to destroying their own former icons. A painting of the interior of Canterbury Cathedral after the excessive iconoclasm of the Civil War years, depicting only a few seated Puritans and some men smashing the last remaining stained-glass windows, is striking only in its depressing emptiness.
But while the destruction of irreplaceable masterpieces is no doubt regrettable, the exhibition also attempts to explain iconoclasm as central to questions about the nature of art and its perceived social purpose. Art is never politically anodyne, and its dual moral and economic value makes it a doubly attractive target for activists. Mary Richardson, whose 1914 attack on Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery helped to highlight the Suffragette cause, may have been a philistine when it came to aesthetics, but there is no denying the blunt efficiency of her gesture. The vandalism of the painting was doubly successful in that it damaged a female nude that Richardson was sick of seeing men leer at, and it also attracted the attention of the establishment because one of its treasures had suddenly lost financial value.
The latter part of the exhibition marks the adoption of iconoclasm as a central theme in postmodern art. Under the shadow of potential nuclear war, 1960s artists reappropriated destruction as a tool for creation. Yoko Ono thematised destruction in her work by having layers of her clothes cut off on film, symbolising the breakdown of cultural conventions. Raphael Montañes Ortiz demolished furniture and reconstructed it in new abstract forms, transforming real objects into their destroyed remains. Later still, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved series, in which the artists buy old painted portraits of real people and alter them to show the faces in states of decomposition, tackles the idea of art as an eternal repository of identity and ideas.
If there is one central idea behind this show, it is that art, like everything, is sometimes tragically transitory, and there is no guarantee against its eventual destruction.