Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm @ Tate Britain

I read a slighting review of this saying it was incoherent and a classic example of bad – i.e. highfalutin’, over-intellectual – curatorship. Certainly, if you went expecting an exhibition of art you’d be disappointed; the exhibition includes few if any complete works of art. I quickly realised the best way to think about it is as an essay about art – or about an aspect of art history, namely the ability of art to inspire the urge to destroy.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: Religion, Politics, Aesthetics (which should be an immediate warning that we’re dealing with something more like an article or a thesis than a display):

Rooms 1 to 4. Religious iconoclasm

The exhibition dated the word iconoclasm to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries 1536 to 1540. This surprised me since, as I’ve just been reading in The Conversion of Europe, iconoclasm was a major religious movement in the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries, as its etymology suggests: iconoclasm stems from the Medieval Latin iconoclastes, from Late Greek eikonoklastes, from eikon (genitive eikonos) meaning ‘image’ + klastes, ‘breaker’, from klas– past tense stem of klan, ‘to break’.

The first few rooms contained examples of statuary, stained glass and religious architecture from Rievaulx and Fountains abbeys which had been destroyed by Henry’s forces. Henry VIII decided to break with the authority of the Pope in Rome when the Pope refused to allow him to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Henry made himself head of a new Church of England and allowed the zealous reformers to implement the policies of the European or German Reformation begun by Martin Luther in the 1510s. This meant closing all Catholic shrines – particularly the world-famous one to Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury – and taking the Second Commandment at face value:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I The Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My Commandments. (Exodus  chapter 20, verses 4 to 6, in the Revised Standard Version)

Worshiping images was held to be the sin of idolatry and, in more modern interpretations, pagan superstition. This gave the reformers and the King’s ministers carte blanche to destroy all Catholic monasteries and convents, to strip all gold and jewels from all shrines, paintings and altarpieces, to deface and smash all religious statues, to smash stained glass windows, melt down and sell of the lead.

There was a display case with some Christian books from the 1620s on every page of which a reformer had carefully gone through cutting out the image of God the father which had featured in scenes of the Creation etc. There was a very striking rood screen panel from Binham Priory in Norfolk which had featured paintings of Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, but which reformers had whitewashed over and then written on religious texts. The Catholic reliance on imagery and relics forcefully replaced by a Protestant insistence on the primacy of the Word. I know there are some historians who posit that this primacy of the Word over the Image explains why England’s literature is rich but our visual arts have generally lagged behind the Continent…

It must always be remembered that the Church of England which conservatives hold so dear and which the British went out to impose on native peoples all over its Empire, was founded on a truly vast act of corporate vandalism. And not just one:

The Civil Wars

After a few rooms of ruined statues and defaced paintings, the exhibition skipped forward to the 1640s and the Civil Wars (or Great Rebellion) which overthrew Charles I. The Puritans unleashed a second great wave of state-sponsored vandalism, with widespread smashing of statues and stained glass etc, led by zealots like William Dowsing in heavily Puritan East Anglia.

It is worth reflecting that twice in the past 500 years, Britain’s rulers have given the people of Britain, at all levels, permission and encouragement to destroy and deface the most beautiful and holy works of art. It testifies to a deep-seated destructive and vandalistic urge in British, and particularly English, culture.

From my teens whenever I’ve seen a vandalised phone box or bus shelter I’ve thought, Yes; that is in a long and venerable tradition of destruction.


But if there is a deep-seated urge to destroy which is just waiting for official permission to be unleashed, there is an equal and opposite urge to preserve relics and mementoes. In the early religious rooms ‘relic’ refers to the religious relics – fragments of the true cross, the crown of thorns, Jesus’ sandals, bits of saints bodies or clothes etc – which in the Dark Ages had been used to spread the healing power of the saints, and which fill the pages of, for example, the Venerable Bede. I was reminded of the British Museum’s great 2011 exhibition Treasures of Heaven which concluded, unexpectedly, with the pair of gloves which Charles I wore at the scaffold, with possible droplets of blood on them, and which were preserved to this day by devout Anglo-Catholics. And of course the weeping crowd at his execution surged forward uncontrollably to dip whatever rags they had into the blood of the martyr. Nothing John Milton or the other Parliamentary propagandists could do could budge the faith of a large part of the English population that Charles died a martyr. And this thought led into the next few rooms:

Room 5. Politics and public space

The commentary made the point that one of the most characteristic art forms of the 18th and 19th centuries was the public statue, especially of royalty and military figures. It then looked in detail at how several high profile public statues were defaced and destroyed, namely Nelson’s column in Dublin – blown up by the IRA – the equestrian statue of King William in Dublin – defaced, ridiculed and then demolished after independence – and a column with statue of Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, the so-called Butcher of Culloden who led the British army which crushed the Jacobite Rising of 1745. His statue stood for a long time in the centre of Aberdeen until local Scottish soldiers asked for it to be removed in the 1920s.

The destruction of statues of the oppressor made me think of the iconic toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. What did it materially benefit anyone to pull it down? Instead the statue played a psychological role as a fetish or symbol of the regime and was not only pulled down but then liberally spanked with shoes, apparently an Arab sign of disrespect.

But the paradoxical wishes to destroy and to preserve made me think of the Berlin Wall. Yes, everyone rushed to have their photo taken with a pickaxe demolishing a section in 1989 – but they also rushed to grab a piece of the wall and many thousands of people hold on to this memento of a historic moment, just like people held on to their rags dipped in Charles I’s blood, or the monks on the Venerable Bede’s lifetime clung on to hairs or fragments of the clothes of holy men.

At the bottom of this exhibition lies the fundamental human ability to endow inanimate objects with tremendous psychological importance, good and bad (reminding me of the prehistoric decorated objects in the British Museum’s fascinating Ice Age art exhibition). Iconoclasm, the destruction of venerated objects, is obviously the dark side of our ability to venerate and value found or made objects.

Room 6. The Suffragettes

Deeds not words was their motto and the suffragettes defaced and damaged an impressive roster of art works. It was simple but striking to see how many of them were paintings of women, such as the Rokeby Venus.

Why, the suffragettes raged, did men raise idealised images of women onto pedestals but treat real women as inferiors or even imprison them and torture them (with force feeding)?

Photo of the Rokeby Venus showing the slashes made in it by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914

Photo of the Rokeby Venus showing the slashes made in it by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914

Rooms 7 to 9. Iconoclasm in Art

Suddenly it’s the 1960s and we’re into conceptual and performance art, a wing of which enjoyed smashing things up. Hence the organisation known as the Destruction In Art Symposium or Raphael Montañez smashing up pianos and chairs, recording the process and exhibiting the results, or Douglas Gordon burning Andy Warhol silks or the Chapman brothers defacing cartoons or mark Wallinger making a video of the Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth with almost all the frame blocked by a black rectangle. Ho ho ho, those subversive artists 🙂 But nothing is subversive in Art anymore, so these last rooms had almost no impact on me; apart from learning that the Taliban established a kind of genre or routine display by unspooling videotapes and handing them from lamp-posts etc, thus creating a kind of waterfall of black tape which blows in the wind, which was here recreated by an artist.

I also saw three photo-montages by John Stezaker who I’d never heard of before. Here’s a selection of images he creates by defacing standard portraits.


It would be easy to dismiss the exhibition as incoherently making giant leaps between vastly different periods of history, only superficially examining any of them, before skating on to the next superficial moment.

But I bought into its cherrypicking approach from the start and therefore enjoyed it as a compilation tape, a kind of Now That’s What I Call Iconoclasm CD, yanking together different ‘works’ and moments and meanings to create a fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

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  1. British Folk Art @ Tate Britain | Books & Boots

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