Tate Britain’s unusual exhibition “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm” aims to explore the history of physical attacks on art in Britain from the 16th century to the present day for political, religious or other idealistic reasons, such attacks still taking place as recently as last year with the damage to the Rothko paining at Tate Modern. Henry VII appears to start the whole thing off, but presumably such attacks took place before him, for example when the Romans invaded Britain and imposed their gods, or when Christianity sought to remove the previous idolatry. It would have been good to have had a little more going back further in time as a “taster” to the main exhibition. The real loss from the concerted destruction of art in the name of religion from the 16th century onwards is a whole period of British art history; we can only see glimpses of what must have been a rich and stunning heritage. The exhibition brings us towards the 20th century with destruction of statues in Ireland and Britain from the 18th century onwards, the Suffragette movement and damage to artworks in the Tate and other galleries in London. It then loses its way in the last two galleries by showing modern work by artists who have used destruction as a theme in their artwork. There are hundreds of such artworks. Why pick the ones here, and why break the theme? Although this is Tate Britain, it would have been good to break out of the straightjacket of Britain and had a closing room looking at international examples, perhaps even where cities such as Budapest which, with its Memento Park, has sought to remove political sculpture but also preserve them because of their artistic and historic importance.
The critics have generally not been kind, particularly Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard and Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Both agree that the exhibition starts well. but loses its way towards the end.