Wednesday, 22 January 2014


Guiltily, I've realised that the Tate Britain exhibition 'Art under Attack' has closed by the time I've actually got round to writing about it. That said - while I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, it got me thinking about how exhibitions work (or not) and made me wish I'd picked up the catalogue. I think this is probably the stuff of a great book, or documentary, trapped inside a show. Let me explain...

First things first - I was seeing the exhibition under the most pleasant of circumstances: a private view, courtesy of an invitation from my friend Maryam. (Thank you, Maryam!) Extremely pleasant to be eased into one's latest round of cultural activity with a glass of wine and a talk from a specialist - and, of course, to see the art when the gallery is significantly less crowded.

The idea behind the exhibition is certainly intriguing - the first (according to the Tate) survey of 'image-breaking' over the last few centuries. Across three sections - religion, politics and aesthetics - we're treated/subjected (delete as applicable) to a relentless parade of violence against artworks - or at least, physical assaults on art at face value. Sometimes the results are more intriguing than that.

To get the criticism out of the way - the 'dips' in the show, for me, came when the method or process took over from the imagery. So, for example, one particular run of paintings was arranged to demonstrate the skill of the restorer - the pictures had all been vandalised, then rescued by the painstaking work of conservation experts. The irony is, of course, that then they just look like normal paintings again, with nothing really to connect or illuminate them. M & I were surmising that it was no wonder the curator, in her introductory talk, was so enthusiastic about this section of the show, because it's exactly the kind of thing that the insider would think was transportingly amazing, but leave the lay-viewer slightly mystified. Equally, the exhibition succumbed to the occasional bout of 'museumania': for example, amid a bunch of stuff in a glass case, your gaze settles on a fairly non-descript coin; find the label at the bottom and it says 'Unidentified coin'. Gah!

So, that's what I mean when I think I might have got more out of a programme or book on this particular theme - that story of potential loss, turned round by diligence and precision, is probably better told than seen. Another example would be the history of suffragette vandalism against artworks - a huge topic in itself, it seems to me, and inevitably the show can only, er, scratch the surface.

But where the exhibition really scored - and I'm disturbing myself slightly by typing this - is when it showed what couldn't be saved.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the 'Religion' rooms. Two unforgettable exhibits: a statue of Christ, missing its nose, a hand and a whole arm - defaced during wholesale Reformation destruction of religious images; and a remarkable panel (from Binham Priory) showing words from the Bible colliding with a painting of Jesus. The radical Protestants - again, rejecting religious paintings as graven images - covered the picture up with scripture; with this top layer gradually giving way, Christ 'rises again' underneath.

Unblemished, these would have been interesting, and probably fine, artefacts. But broken, they are unstoppably powerful. Could I ask for better symbolism of ... well, the breakdown of religious belief, or the damage caused by (organised) religion, or the ruthlessness of fundamentalism ... than that offered by these pieces of pieces? Could there be a more instant and overwhelming image of the purist/Puritanical cleaving to the Word of God versus Jesus living out Christian beliefs in spirit than the Binham panel? I'm not sure. I don't have concrete spiritual leanings myself - or at least, they are not worked out, untested. But the idea that in seeking to obliterate the messages of these works, the vandals have only intensified them - how appealing.

The exhibition ended on a lighter note, and in fact, a bit of a cheat. Included in the 'Aesthetics' section were the Chapman brothers' series where they have taken existing portrait oils and added signs of decay to the subjects (the meaning behind the 'project' appears to be a visualisation of how the people in the portraits are now forgotten - but as usual with the Chapmans, it is more about the combined hit of horror and humour). We also see a 'destroyed piano' by the performance artist Raphael Montanez Ortiz. In other words, this is about art that is itself visceral and explosive, rather than ideological attacks on innocent works. But it's easy to forgive the digression, because the effect is ultimately positive - whether you're fond of the particular pieces on display or not, there is some sign that all this violent energy is at last being channelled into creating something new.

* * *

The image of the Binham 'Risen Christ' is taken from the Blue Guides website - I couldn't see any further source beyond that. The Tate website still has the exhibition details, and you can still order the accompanying book.

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