Art under Attack at Tate Britain

This exhibition was a nice retreat from the OAPs and school children gathering en-masse in the foyer and cafe. It’s a large exhibition in terms of space and an interesting subject – the destruction of art. But at £14.50 a go before booking fees (although I doubt you’d ever need to book for this one) I can’t imagine anyone other than members turning up to see it.

But regardless, I enjoyed my visit and it did make me think.

The first pieces that struck me were a collection of limestone heads – of the Virgin Mary and God the Father – classic religious iconography destroyed in Edward VI’s reign following his father’s break from Catholicism. But it was the accompanying photo of the screen at Winchester Cathedral from where these came and the detail and sophistication of the pieces that made them recognisable as art. To then read how organised destruction took place – first the heads and hands were removed before the torso was cut into three evenly sized pieces to be re-used as masonry – was pretty horrific.

I couldn’t help imagining a decree going out meaning all Rothkos worldwide should be trimmed, cut into pieces and re-used as an undercoat on walls. First world problems I know, but it still made me feel sad.

The Suffragette Mary Richardson’s destruction with a meat cleaver of the Rokeby Venus in 1914, by contrast, highlights how art is just a thing and how disproportionately revered art can be in contrast to genuine world struggles, with her quoted as saying “you can get another picture, but you can’t get another life.”. This brings to mind the inclusion of the whole of Syria on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List 2014. Great, it’s on a list, but that isn’t going to have a minute piece of influence on the ongoing situation or people’s lives in that country.

But people do feel something when it comes to art and to have it destroyed creates a negative feeling, you might not be able to explain exactly why, but it’s there. Even supporters of the Suffragettes were shocked by their campaigns of destruction in the nation’s art galleries, with the the Vorticists writing an open letter asking them to stop.

I’d have liked to have seen more un-restored pieces of modern art to bring the show alive. To see Chair by Allen Jones restored back to health is far less interesting in this context than the paint stripper ruined face in the accompanying photograph. The Crucifixion with crossed out faces and books with pictures of Thomas Beckett removed were interesting to see, but this seemed to stop as you got to recent years. Maybe its the archaeologist in me that wants to see the damage, not the restoration.

Jake and Dinos Chapman appear at the end, quite rightly. They famously defaced (‘rectified’) a series of Goya prints, breaking a huge art taboo. But on display here were their historic portraits with altered faces, which in contrast is just like scribbling on pictures of some dead old men. So with that the whole exhibition fell flat. Where was the discussion on what ‘vandalism’ means today? Could they not get permission for the works they really wanted? Or were they not brave enough to discuss this emotive topic in detail?

At £14.50 a ticket this must have been pitched as a blockbuster exhibition, right? But it was just a quite interesting look at historic iconoclasm, which ought to have been a free exhibition and a nice added extra on top of your visit to see Lowry. I don’t want to dwell on money, as I know all cultural institutions desperately need it, but if you’re going to out-price a massive section of the population you really better make sure its worth it.

Tate Britain
£14.50 adults (in case you hadn’t worked that out already)
Until 5 January 2014


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