Statue of the Dead Christ

“Statue of the Dead Christ” (courtesy The Mercers’ Company) (all images via Tate Britain)

This fall the Tate Britain is opening an exhibition on art that has been physically attacked in the country, whether for political, religious, or personal reasons, or just because the artist was into destruction.

Art under Attack

“Oliver Cromwell” (hung upside down) (courtesy Highland Council)

Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm — the drier half of the title referring to purposeful annihilation for explicit reasons — comes in the wake of recent art attacks like the one last month at the National Gallery in London where a man with Fathers 4 Justice, an extreme group for fathers cut off from their children, pasted a picture of his son over the 19th century landscape. Also last month was the spray paint attack on a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, just weeks after a statue had been spray painted there. And of course there’s the attack on a Rothko at the Tate last fall. And Great Britain is far from having the monopoly on art destruction, as earlier this year there was the vandalizing of the Louvre’s Delacroix of “Liberty Leading the People” by a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, a Basquiat marred with a felt-tipped pen in 2010 at the Paris Modern Art Museum, and the stenciling of a Picasso at the Menil Collection in Houston last year.

Art under Attack

Allen Jones, “Chair” (1969) (© Allen Jones)

And that’s why it makes for an interesting exhibition theme. The works will include those that are blatantly offensive and it’s not hard to imagine them invoking some rage, like Allen Jones’ “Chair” (1969) that has a woman shown as a piece of furniture and feminists attacked with paint stripper. There’s also Edward Burne Jones’ overly sensual “Sibylla Delphica” (1898) attacked by suffragettes in 1913 at the Manchester Art Gallery. Yet there are also political art attacks, like Frederick Duleep Singh, a monarchist who is known to have had a portrait of royalist defeater Oliver Cromwell hanging upside down in his bathroom. And art vandalism has its deepest roots in religion, where the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539 ripped apart the Catholic religious structure. The “Statue of the Dead Christ” shown at the top of this post is one of the damaged relics of this time. It was discovered in 1954 under a church floor after it was hidden for hundreds of years, his hands legs, and crown of thorns mutilated by Protestants.

Art under Attack

Jake and Dinos Chapman, “One Day You WIll No Longer Be Loved II (No 6)” (2008) (© Jake and Dinos Chapman, photograph by Todd-White Art Photography).

The exhibition is also going to veer off into artists who work with destruction, such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, “One Day You WIll No Longer Be Loved II (No 6)” that warps a portrait into a vision of death. However, there’s more than enough to work with in the history of art attacks. For as long as there’s been art, people have been stabbing it, blowing it up, painting over it, ripping it apart, or just trying to make it go away, and there’s something powerful in looking at this reaction as much as the art itself.

Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at the Tate Britain (Millbank, London) open on October 2 and will continue until January 5. 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...