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Purposeful destruction: Smashing art at the Tate Britain

Tate Britain traces the driving forces and ideologies behind a 500-year history of iconoclasm

London. A piece of lead from the US with very little obvious aesthetic appeal is due to go on show at Tate Britain this month. It will be joined by marble fragments from Dublin, stained-glass windows from Canterbury Cathedral and a smashed piano, complete with an audio recording of its destruction at the hands of an axe-wielding artist. Aside from the Medieval windows, which have been removed from the cathedral especially for the exhibition and therefore represent a real coup for the Tate, these objects may look out of place in an art museum and, at first glance, seem as if they have little in common. One common feature, however, links them: they are all works of art that have suffered physical attacks. “Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm” explores 500 years of deliberate destruction in Britain.

“We’re trying to get away from the [misunderstanding] of iconoclasm as just vandalism, but destruction that has an ideology and a purpose,” says the show’s co-curator Tabitha Barber. The exhibition opens with Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries beginning in 1536, an act that led to the destruction of countless works of art including the attack on the hyperrealistic pre-Reformation sculpture Statue of a Dead Christ, around 1500-20—one of the stars of the Tate show. Found buried under the floor of London’s Mercers’ Chapel in 1954, the sculpture was probably attacked on the orders of Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI. Henry’s actions laid the foundation for the future destruction of images including the removal of depictions of Christ from Canterbury Cathedral’s windows more than 100 years later.

Political motives are often a driving force behind iconoclasm. For example, the unassuming lump of lead is a fragment of an equestrian statue of George III by Joseph Wilton. It was ceremoniously toppled in New York in 1776

after a public reading of the Declaration of Independence with the plan to melt it down to make bullets to fire at royalist troops. The marble fragments from Dublin are from Nelson’s Pillar, which was blown up in 1966 by a group affiliated to the IRA. “Although these fragments are unremarkable to look at now, they have value and an afterlife—they live on after iconoclasm with a new power,” Barber says.

The show closes with a section devoted to artists, such as the Chapman Brothers, who use destruction as a means of creating something else. Prominent in the “aesthetics” section of the show is the piano mangled by American artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz in 1966 after the famous Destruction in Art Symposium in London.

• Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, Tate Britain,

London, 2 October-5 January 2014

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Purposeful destruction'