Saturday, October 5, 2013

"Art Under Attack" at Tate Britain: Under Attack

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm opened this week at the Tate Britain, and reviews are not totally positive. Not having seen the exhibition of course, I can still see what the reviewers are concerned about: the exhibition equates the destruction of Catholic art and heritage with deconstructionist art:

From The Guardian:

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm wants to make us think, but I found myself asking the wrong questions and drawing the wrong conclusions. The exhibition fumbles with ideas about "iconoclasm", or the deliberate destruction of art: can art vandalism be art? Is there a perverse humour or truth or beauty in a suffragette slashing Velázquez's Venus or the IRA blowing up Nelson's Pillar in Dublin?

But seeing the Chapmans' glib attacks on old art in the same show as that unforgettably moving Dead Christ, which resurfaced under the Mercers' Chapel in London in 1954, invites grim thoughts about what art is now. The Chapmans' disfiguring of portraits could only happen in a cynical moneyed art world that has no soul. They have the cash to buy oil paintings in order to trash them. Their clients find that kind of thing amusing.

I go back to the Dead Christ: a passionate work of art made to help ordinary people contemplate the biggest realities of life and death. The contrast damns the Chapmans to hell.

Tender depictions of the Virgin Mary and harrowing visions of the sufferings of Christ abound in the first few galleries of this show, in stone and wood and stained glass. All have been damaged, many almost beyond recognition. There are illuminated manuscripts with pages torn out. A painting of the inside of Canterbury Cathedral in 1657 looks innocuous until you see little Puritans patiently, precisely smashing out its stained glass windows.

These rooms offer a truly eye-opening revelation of how much great art was lost when the Protestant Word erased the Catholic image – sometimes literally, as when a painting of the Man of Sorrows had a Biblical text written over it.

But none of this has anything to do with the studiously ambivalent, pretentious way the rest of the show explores modern attacks on art. The casting down of Catholic art in the Reformation did not make that art more "interesting": it is loss, pure loss. Countless things have gone forever. Others survive as battered husks. Their destruction is tragic, to be mourned.

Metro publishes a similar review about how the exhibition confuses the viewer. The New York Times review is more positive but still a little ambivalent. The Guardian, which is the "media partner" of the exhibition, provides this slideshow of images. One of those images was featured on the cover of Eamon Duffy's great The Stripping of the Altars paperback edition.

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