27/11/2013 09:18 GMT | Updated 26/01/2014 05:59 GMT

Arts Review: Art Under Attack, Tate Britain


From Kings to suffragettes, from the IRA to artists themselves, there is a long history of art being the focus of attack both from the state and from the public. This history of iconoclasm, or image breaking, is captured in this wide-ranging and fascinating exhibition at the Tate Britain.

The first part of the exhibition examines the state-led destruction of art, most notably under Henry VIII where Roman Catholic art and icons were systematically destroyed as part of the Reformation. The exhibition includes sculptures from Abbeys of decapitated Virgin Marys and anti-Papal propaganda such as Girolamo da Treviso's A Protestant Allegory of evangelists stoning the Pope.

Given that it is estimated that over 90 per cent of medieval sculpture was lost during this period, the remnants give an idea of the scale of destruction caused during these years.

The second part of the exhibition looks at how visible works of art have been the focus of attack as a political protest against the state. The suffragettes famously used attacks on art in museums and galleries as a means of drawing publicity to the fight for female suffrage. Though they were criticised for it at the time, their success in creating headlines was noted by other campaigns such as the IRA who adopted similar methods.

Where the art that was attacked is no longer available, the exhibition has used other means - photographs, newsreel and radio recordings - to convey the damage caused. Of particular interest were the news reports of the IRA destruction of Nelson's Pillar in Dublin in 1966. This statue, along with the Equestrian Statue of William III, were seen as very visible symbols of British rule and were the focus of many smaller scale attacks before both were eventually destroyed completely.

I also enjoyed very much the interview with Mary Richardson, the suffragette who slashed The Rokeby Venus in 1914 in protest at Emmeline Pankhurst's imprisonment. The painting has been so well restored as to make the slashes from Richardson's meat cleaver almost invisible. The Tate Britain has therefore included photos in the exhibition of the damage from the time.

The interview with Mary Richardson from 1961 portrays a woman unrepentant of her actions and gives a fascinating insight into what motivates people to attack certain pieces of art and what impact they hope to achieve.

If you are particularly interested in the suffragettes, it is worth noting that there is a separate free exhibition also at the Tate Britain of the work of Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline's daughter and artist behind many of the militant suffragettes' most striking images.

The final part of the exhibition looks at how contemporary artists themselves are transforming pre-existing images. An interesting example was from the work of Kate Davis who traced parts of her body over copies of Modigliani's work as a response to his idealism of the female form.

Only this year Constable's The Hay Wain was attacked by Fathers 4 Justice to draw attention to their cause proving that art continues to be the focus of political protest.

To January 5, 2014

Tate Britain, London

Picture caption details: Allen Jones, Chair 1969, Tate © Allen Jones