Thursday 19 December 2013

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm – Tate Britain

I went to this exhibition not really knowing what to expect. I don’t claim any great knowledge of British iconoclasm, and the only thing I’d heard about it was that the different sections were interesting, but quite disparate. I was intrigued by the subject matter, but did wonder how they would manage to cover such a broad period while keeping it fluid and relevant to the exhibition as a whole.

The first section was the one I was expecting to be most at home in – iconoclasm due to Henry VIII’s break with Rome, beautiful religious objects defaced, I knew where I stood with this. The lighting and layout created a serene feeling in these rooms, and it was a treat to see the objects up close and personal. It was interesting to see the different levels of destruction – some obviously felt far more passionately about it, others were merely following the law. Either way, it was sad to see so many items ruined. I liked the progression to art that was far less visual with the 16th and 17th century Protestants having a far less elaborate form of religious art.

The next section led to the politics aspect of the exhibition. There was no great time leap, and it all seemed very fitting. What better footing to lead in to it than Civil War destruction? I found this section probably the most thought provoking – the destruction of statues of high profile figures (something which is still common today), and probably my favourite objects – defaced coins. The suffragette attacks on art really got me thinking about if it’s ever OK to damage art. At least this was destruction with a cause rather than merely for the sake of repression. It also brought home the importance of art, that throughout history it’s been under attack precisely because it is so important (a fact that is actually very heartening, even if the destruction of it is deeply unsettling). I also feel it would be wrong to talk about this section without taking a moment to acknowledge the incredible conservation work done to some of the damaged portraits – you wouldn’t know they had been attacked to look at them!

The final section based around aesthetics was not one I was planning on spending that long in. I have nothing against modern art but I had thought I would be least interested in this section. I was wrong. The progression to iconoclasm as art was enthralling, and I became completely entranced by some of the pieces. I was particularly interested in the final portraits, a series entitled One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved by Jake and Dinos Chapman where they take historic portraits of unknown people and change them, showing decay. Although the archivist in my baulks at the idea of this, I really did like them a lot, and, if they hadn’t breathed new life in to them, chances are they would have remained forgotten.

Overall, this is a fantastic, thought provoking exhibition. It’s clearly been well thought out, and leads you through the history of British iconoclasm, showing the different forms it can take. I’d only ever thought of iconoclasm as destructive, but the exhibition made me see that iconoclasm can in itself create art. There’s some really great pieces on show, and with such a variety of subjects and mediums, there’s bound to be something that everybody will enjoy. It’s only on until 5th January, so if you haven’t been yet, you haven’t got long. Go, you won’t regret it.

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