Sewell on Tate's iconoclasm show

October 16 2013

Image of Sewell on Tate's iconoclasm show

Picture: BG

I enjoyed the Tate's new 'Art Under Attack' exhibition. It's about iconoclasm, but Tate were told they couldn't call it that, because people wouldn't understand what it meant. There are some beautiful objects on display, like the above c.1500 defaced statue of Christ, which I found strangely moving. Such things make you realise how much we lost in Britain during the Reformation. So thanks for that, Henry. We so rarely think of an English tradition in religious art, but it must have been a deeply embedded one, with practically every painted surface in a church decorated with something. As my boss, Philip Mould, always reminds me, the history of art is the history of what survives.

Still, iconoclasm is a difficult theme for an exhibition to pull off, as the Great Brian points out in the Standard:

The problem for this exhibition, until it reaches the end of the 17th century (when the Puritans too behaved as perversely as Henry’s men), is that the iconoclasts destroyed almost everything that was once worth exhibiting and it exists — if it exists at all — only in fragments and in such records as paintings and prints. Two rouge marble fragments from the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury — one of a thousand pilgrimage shrines destroyed — are of no interest in themselves but only provide evidence that some structural part of it was in this rich material; without the legend these could as easily be fragments of a Georgian fireplace. Fragments of lead and carved stone from Rievaulx are exactly that too — fragments of architectural evidence. Larger sculptures, headless and handless, are evidence of the physical effort involved in destruction. Fragments of small alabaster sculptures even have something of the fetish souvenir about them.

We then move on to the tumbling of statues — away with William the Turd and George I, Nelson and the Duke of Cumberland — and to defaced coins, among them one with a noose about the neck of George III and another of Victoria scarred with the legend “I love shag”. Such trivia from the local junk shop make for a very thin exhibition, and it is hardly thickened by its treatment of the suffragettes from Manchester — a couple of the 13 paintings the glass of which they smashed, and from the National Gallery a photograph of Velázquez’s Venus, hacked by stupid Mary Richardson with a butcher’s cleaver, and one of the five Bellinis attacked with her cane by the equally stupid Freda Graham. These are not to be recognised as examples of iconoclasm, for any painting of anything would have served as well, or badly, to draw attention to their cause; had they attacked the paintings in Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1912, they would have attracted just as much attention and won the public to their side.

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