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Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm

Rachel Giles

Tate Britain
Until January 5, 2014

On March 4, 1986, the Tate's director received an anonymous letter from a woman explaining her views about Allen Jones's 1969 work Chair: 'My immediate response (I wanted to kick it to small pieces and destroy it) was of great anger that this piece had been selected as something which was revered as a valuable statement of art when it is nothing more than kinky pornography.'

Four days later, two women walked into the gallery and desecrated Chair by dousing it with paint stripper. The work consists of a life-sized female figure lying on her back, knees pulled up to her chest, with a cushion fixed to the back of her thighs. She wears only leather hotpants and a pair of knee-high boots. It's possible the letter to the director was a tipoff, but it made little difference: her face was melted by the solvent. She was fully restored by the artist after three months' painstaking work.

Nearly 350 years earlier, William Dowsing wrote a report on 27 January 1644, in Ufford, Suffolk. He carefully noted the details of an efficient day's iconoclasm, carried out with the authorisation of Parliament. 'We brake down 30 superstitious pictures', he wrote; 'and gave direction to take down 37 more; and 4 cherubims to be taking down of wood; and the chancel levelled.'

These are two contrasting examples of iconoclasm in the exhibition. Damage can be done for aesthetic reasons, as in the case of Chair, where a sense of beauty or taste is outraged. Or it can be driven by religious belief, as with the systematic purging of images in Britain's churches during the Reformation. Also, the show says, iconoclasm can be political, with a large section devoted to the destruction of war monuments and Suffragette attacks on art. As a whole, these different comparisons sit together pretty awkwardly. But the show does make you think, on a deeper level, about the power of images, destruction, and remaking.

We might think we know about the Reformation and its impact on a faith. But it is genuinely shocking to learn how little religious art was left after the slashing, smashing, gouging, breaking and burning that took place from Henry VIII's reign through to Cromwell's time: perhaps 10 per cent. Contemplate here, up close, the shards of what's left: the fragments of glass, the misshapen lumps of marble, a Virgin's lopsided breast with a tiny Christ's hand clinging onto it; an armless wooden Christ.

But still, is there a redemption, a sort of grace in destruction? The damage has been done, but the shattered objects are still there. Take the armless 16th century wooden Christ - now it cannot be passed over as an over-familiar icon. You have to look again. Mutilated, he looks frailer still, more human. In two stained glass-panels from Canterbury Cathedral dating back to 1180, the figure of Christ was painstakingly chipped away. The negative space left by his removal, shown in photographs (since the panels have now been restored) only emphasises what's missing. And shattered stained-glass fragments from Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford from the 1630s, reassembled, have a new energy.

Of course, art galleries are places that seek at all costs to preserve and protect works of art. The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus') by Velázquez, slashed in 1914 by a Suffragette, was carefully restored - as was Allen Jones's Chair. And the art business does everything it can to protect the quasi-religious 'aura' - as Walter Benjamin called it - of an original work of art in a bid to boost its monetary value. So there is something a little odd about a show on iconoclasm within the walls of gallery.

I tried to put all the disparate bits of this show together, the thought came to me that iconoclasm is part of the ebb and flow of human life, whatever the motive. As Ecclesiastes says, there is 'a time to tear down', a time to make way for the next thing - which will, eventually, also be torn down. When an image is smashed, what is really being attacked is the idea behind it.

Ultimately, perhaps many of our most dearly-held ideas need to be broken, so that we can see them with new eyes: especially our ideas about God. CS Lewis wrote that these must be perpetually remade: 'My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.'