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Saturday, 23 November 2013

Art Under Attack: Get your meat cleavers and crowbars

We have been really excited about the Tate Britain’s new fabulously titled exhibition exploring iconoclasm in British Art. Despite the somewhat distracting salmon coloured wall paint, we have emerged educated, energized and wondering why more art doesn’t provoke attack.

The exhibition starts out much as you image it might- with the Dissolution of the Catholic Church. The objects in this area are undoubtedly interesting, although personally I tire quickly of beheaded stone statues and stained glass. If religious art and theological conflict isn’t exactly your thing, fear not. Once out of the religion section and into the luridly coloured ‘Politics’ rooms, things pick up significantly. Towering stone icons of power and subjugation crumble in the face of angry crowds and bombs. From the enormous (Nelson’s column in Dublin) to the minuscule (Victorian coins), the people lash out against power via art. There’s nothing wrong with the Tate’s display of religious iconoclasm, but as a visitor I found it much easier to feel animated about bottom up revolutionary actions rather than top down destruction of art driven by a King’s desire to divorce his wife.


The two rooms of ‘Politics’ are undoubtedly the exhibitions show stoppers. The defaced coins from the Timothy Miller collection are both powerful and hilarious. One Victoria copper penny from 1841 has been faced with the word ‘shag’ etched into the monarch’s face and a pipe inserted into her mouth. Coins, sometimes the only artworks widely availably to the poorer classes, prove a powerful statement of the voiceless asserting their own opinions. These harmless acts of iconoclasm are contrasted with the bombing of Dublin’s Nelson’s Pillar in 1966 accompanied by a British Pathe news report. These rooms make really excellent use of multimedia in the forms of interviews, videos and recordings- something more art galleries should be doing!


Speaking of fantastic multimedia, please do not miss the interview with Mary Richardson, the Suffragette who attacked the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in 1914. She is hilarious and less than remorseful about her actions. She just really didn’t like that painting she says, and sometimes as a pick me up she goes back to the Gallery to view it with meat cleaver slash marks in place. The destruction of idealized female figures in art galleries is an interesting issue within the history of the Suffragette movement. In a time where the Suffragettes are remembered in lavish period pieces shouting ‘Votes for Women’, the cleaver wielding arsonists shown in this room are a sharp reminder of the darker more violent side of the movement.


Things get decidedly more ‘Tate-like’ after this point. White walls and modern art that asks whether art should be defaced despite being offensive. ‘This is just a pile of bricks!’ my friend exclaimed. ‘I’d dump paint on them too.’ Audiences attacking art, artists attacking art, art that uses destruction to tell new stories – it’s interesting but not a revelation.


The entire exhibition left us asking, why don’t we get angry about art more often? Art is there to provoke reactions and maybe anger, destruction and even iconoclasm can tell us more about ourselves and our era’s feelings on power, representation and repression. As Mary Richardson said, the first reaction to an attack on prejudice is always hate before action.

Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm is on at Tate Britain until the 5th of January http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/art-under-attack-histories-british-iconoclasm

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