When considering the destruction or attempted destruction of art for political reasons, recent events spring to mind such as the defacing of a portrait of the Queen at Westminster Abbey or, further back, the collapsing of giant Buddha statues by the Taliban. But defacing or destroying art to further religious or political causes has a long history. This exhibition looks back at Britain’s history to chart such events.
Undoubtedly the biggest destruction of art and imagery in our history came about after Henry VIII decided to move the country away from Catholicism and thus prompted the smashing of stained glass windows and attacks on religious sculptures. The first few galleries are dedicated to the Dissolution with examples of decapitated statues of Christ and artworks depicting anti-papal propaganda.
We then progress to more recent political movements such as the Suffragettes and the IRA. The exhibition never takes a side in the debate over whether the wrecking of art for political ends is ever justified. This agnostic curation prompts the viewer to ask questions for themselves.
The final third of this exhibition changes tack to look at how artists have integrated destruction into their work. It throws up some interesting creations but doesn’t fit with the rest of the exhibition that preceded it.
Visitors will not find too many magnificent pieces of work on display, but this exhibition is more of a history lesson, and provides some answers to questions such as why Britian has so little Catholic art compared with, say, France or Italy. This makes for an exhibition that’s different to the usual Tate shows and anyone with an interest in the history of art will find it insightful.
Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm is on at Tate Britain until 5 January. Tickets are £14.50 for adults, concessions available.