bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Art under Attack at the Tate

Posted in Biblioclasm, Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 6 January, 2014

I went to visit a turkey last week and I do not even like turkeys. Tate Britain’s ‘Art under Attack’ was declared by The Independent to be the museum world’s ‘turkey of the year’. It is not difficult to see why it has received such unwanted accolades – but it deserved a better reaction. It is disjointed – jumping from the ‘long Reformation’ to later modern attacks on statues – and incohesive, attempting to combine suffragette hacking at art with post-War theories of creative destructivity. Its title is also a triple misnomer – but even a problematic exhibition that cannot but fail to live up to its ambitions can be thought-provoking, and this one was certainly that.

I said that its title, which in full is ‘Art under Attack: histories of British Iconoclasm’, is a misnomer thrice over; here is why. First, an exhibition that includes New York destruction of royalist monuments during the American Revolution takes the definition of Britain to its edges but when it includes similar attacks on statues in post-independence Eire, it stretches beyond acknowledged limits. Second, if iconoclasm is the destruction of images, then this show is a celebration of its failure: it necessarily catalogues survivals, sometimes partial, sometimes near-complete. It documents damage and disrespect rather than full-scale loss. Indeed, in some cases like when the suffragettes took the cleaver to gallery exhibits the intention was clearly not to end the work’s life but to violate it. In that context, there was certainly an acknowledgement that what was being attacked was art – as the exhibition shows, idealised female beauty was being made to submit to the ugliness of the culture in which it was venerated – but in other milieux was it ‘art’ that was at stake?

In the reconstruction of battles over public monuments, for instance, were the high-up statues involved considered ‘high art’ and attacked as such? The battle was surely over the creation of a public memory manipulated by the positioning of a monument which was also vulnerable precisely because of its accessible location. The statue’s artistic merits were not the issue – this was primarily conflict over space not beauty.

Of course, it could be said that iconoclasts uncover the anti-beauty in the image which they find so provocative it requires a violent reaction. So, whatever the delicacy of a pre-Reformation devotional object, an evangelical or later Puritan saw that dwarfed by a larger truth: the image tells an ugly lie. But, as this exhibition showed, the reaction was not always complete dismemberment but maiming by slashing or cutting out of an offending element. Perhaps, then, iconoclasm should be re-defined as the intentional disendowing of an object of its value as an icon.

The irony is that the process of disendowment does not entirely remove the artistic: it can only change its focus. The stand-out work on display – worth, as they say, the entrance fee alone – is Thomas Johnson’s 1657 depiction of Canterbury Cathedral (in private hands), shown because it depicts the Puritans at work, smashing glass and searching out wall-paintings but inevitably leaving a shadow of the former art within a structure stunningly reproduced by Johnson’s brush, with all the love of detail of his Dutch contemporaries. The tiny specks of men are at work but it merely redirects attention. The attack on some art endows other art with more power: the charisma of the icon shifts.

This shift may require us to have a broader view of ‘art’ that ‘Art under Attack’ at times allows. One room is given over to discussing the replacement in forward Protestant churches of visual images with written text. This is most strikingly demonstrated with one exhibit, a part of a black-on-white text where the whitewash has faded away to reveal beneath some of the figures that were once integral to the rood screen of which this piece of wood had once been. But the dichotomy is surely too simple. In a culture where the majority would have been illiterate, were the sentences of the commandments placed on the church’s wall merely read? Or was the interaction with these words often itself visual? In two of the items on display, what caught my attention was the care taken with the presentation, which in itself created something fictive. In one case, the triptych of texts, presented closed, where the black lettering against white background, placed within a red-brown surround, was clearly intended to evoke the page of a bound book. In contrast, the other piece used deep hues of red and green on which to write a careful italic-influenced but idiosyncratic, ostentatious script written in gold – a new use for chrysography. The directly pictorial has been removed but these are still images or representations, the art of depicting the concept of the Word. Art, when under attack, has the ability to imitate Proteus and to take on new forms.

Similar points can be extrapolated to other sections of the exhibition. Behind some of the earliest exhibits here lie stories of protection, benign disregard and eventual revival. Too often, we can only speculate whether a near-complete statue outlived Reformation hatred and still exists because it was consciously hidden in order to survive, or simply forgotten and discarded. In some more recent cases, something more happens: the misfortunes of an art work might actually enhance its iconic status. So, the Rockeby Venus gained attention through the slashes across her back inflicted by Mary Robinson in 1914 – a response similar perhaps to the yet-greater status imposed on the Mona Lisa after its disappearance and later damage, or the ‘fresco’ (though, notoriously, not painted with the accepted technique) by the same master in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Last Supper. Is it a function of the impact that iconoclasm has had that we are conditioned to find our art particularly evocative when it is imperfect or incomplete? Such objects allow us to engage through our imagination: in miniature, they are like a walk through the open-roofed nave of a long-dissolved abbey, allowing us to re-construct our own original in our personal idealised form. It is much easier to do that than to think on the absolute loss that has at times occurred – the entire destruction of both object and its memory. If ‘Art under Attack’ fails because it simply cannot let us engage with such obliteration, perhaps that failure – concentrating our thoughts instead on what has lasted and what might have been – is, in itself, art’s Pyrrhic victory.


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