On March 1914, Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery in London and dealt 17 stabs to the ‘Venus in the Mirror’ by Velázquez. The British militant suffragette justified her attack as a protest against the government and demanding a social change. Art, throughout history, has suffered numerous attacks. The Tate Britain organizes from 2nd of October to 5th of January an exhibition titled ‘Art under assault. History of British iconoclasm ‘ which includes some of the most notorious attacks on major works of art in England.
The exhibition presents a selection of strategies behind the attacks into three chronological sections: Religion, Politics and Aesthetics.
The first part explores the beginnings of the doctrine of iconoclasm under the orders of King Henry VIII, who broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established himself as the supreme head of the church in England. We can find works such as ‘The Book of Hours’ (1450-1475), whom prayers to Saint Thomas Becket were cut by the official campaign against the moral corruption of the old religion.
During the Protestant Reformation, the governments of Edward VI and Elizabeth I ordered the destruction of figures of Christ on the cross. Conserved Photographic Images of ‘The Crucifixion’ (1380-1400) shows how the faces of Christ, angels and patterns have been scratched to prevent all forms of communication between the image and the viewer as iconoclastic strategy.
The second section shows some works attacked for political reasons. Fragments of the equestrian statue of William III ‘or the play face down the’ Oliver Cromwell ‘reflect the powerful act against authoritarian leaders. The exhibition also includes photographs and documents about attacks caused by suffragettes who fought for social change. One example is the painting ‘A man with a pair of dividers’, attributed to Bellini, assaulted with a stick by Freda Graham in protest against illegitimate and unconstitutional actions of King George.
Finally, we can find a space about iconoclasm motivated by aesthetics or appearance of works of art as well as contemporary artists whose ideas of destruction and change are forms of creation. Especially striking are the works of authors Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman ‘One day you will no longer be loved’. The artists were buying historical portraits and then painted over them decaying, expressing rejection of the claim of historical painting to immortalize the elite.
This is certainly a very original show, showing us a side of art history less well known but no less interesting.