Art under attack: histories of British iconoclasm

Tate Britain, until 5 January 2014


Iconoclasm – the deliberate defacing or destruction of images – is a very divisive subject. Not just that different people have different views about it. But each of us individually has contrasting reactions. When we learn that between 95 and 99 per cent of all English religious art was destroyed in the Reformation and the Civil War, we are inclined to sigh regretfully at such a loss, or tut-tut at such needless violence. But when the troops enter Baghdad and immediately set about pulling down the statues of Saddam, we look on approvingly, leaving it to future scholars of Iraqi sculpture to lament this wanton destruction.


The point is, as the curators of this intriguing exhibition make clear, that there is nothing wanton about iconoclasm. It is almost always a deliberate, calculated action with a clear, intended purpose.

The purpose of iconoclasm is not primarily about destroying images, but about changing their meaning. Pulling down a statue of Saddam clearly tells the local population that power has decisively shifted. You may take away the debris, but you publicise the photographs of the event. So too, when the Reformers wanted to rid the English church of worship of Mary and the saints, they did not totally destroy many of the images. Instead, they defaced them, usually literally removing the faces of the images, but left them in place, thus demonstrating the shift in religious power from the pope to the king.


[A powerful example of this, not included in the exhibition, is the Monument of the 1956 Revolution in Budapest, where sculptor Ákos Eleőd has recreated Stalin's boots, the only part of the sculpture left after crowds pulled down his statue in 1956.]

The exhibition also underlines that iconoclasm in England was not a rampage of reckless destruction, but a calculated programme that was carefully executed. The original ‘Church Commissioners’ were commissioned to take the monasteries apart and appropriate their wealth, which they did in a thorough, disciplined way. A century later William Dowsing kept a meticulous daily account of the number of ‘superstitious’ images that were defaced and statues that were pulled down, as he and his Roundheads progressed through East Anglia.

The last part of the exhibition shows more recent acts of iconoclasm. Some of this seems to be of a different nature. The Chapman brothers deface old paintings to create new ones. Mark Wallinger obscures most of a film screen to make you focus on the edges of the action. These are quite interesting, but hardly iconoclastic. Compared to the violent antagonism evident in the earlier galleries, where people wanted to reverse the meaning of a work, these seem little more than aesthetic game-playing.

However, other exhibits show that genuine iconoclasm is alive and well in our own age, as people regularly pull down statues, slash paintings, and deface coins of the realm. There is also an amusing circle in which we see suffragettes defacing works of art, and then someone has in turn ‘defaced’ the face of Christabel Pankhurst on a suffragette leaflet.

Some of the stories contain instructive warnings to us not to jump to conclusions. The person who poured paint stripper on Allen Jones’ Chair (a sculpture of an erotically dressed woman contorted into a chair) had surely missed the irony of the work. Meanwhile, I was shocked to find that a Hungarian refugee named Laszlo Szilvany had attacked Reg Butler’s model for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner. This work has always seemed to me one of the most poignant projects of the 1950s, sadly never executed on its intended full scale. But Szilvany felt that Butler’s use of scrap metal was insulting to the victims of European political oppression, and took it upon himself to bend it out of shape. Butler, to his credit, took the action in good part, commenting: ‘It shows the model has something – a shilling’s worth of wire makes a symbol so powerful someone wants to destroy it.’

Visiting this exhibition is a different experience from many shows, because you are often interested in what is not there – the parts of the work that have been knocked off or scratched out. And you are looking at the object not for its intrinsic aesthetic intentions, but for the actions that have been carried out on it to impose a new meaning on it.

But the lasting impression is much as Reg Butler suggests: whatever you may think of iconoclasm, it is a very loud endorsement of the power of art. Iconoclasts recognise that art really does speak with power. That is why they feel the need to redirect that power to convey a different message.

[An edited version of this review appeared in Reform magazine (Dec 2013/Jan 2014)]

© 2014