Art’s power to trigger its own destruction will be displayed at Tate Britain in the first exhibition to explore the history of physical attacks on British painting and sculpture.
Disfigured canvasses, brutalised monuments and remnants of medieval stained glass are among the damaged objects to be featured in “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm”, which will tackle five centuries of violence against art in the name of religion or politics.
Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, said the national collections had been shaped by historical waves of destruction that other European collections had escaped. “We know about the dissolution of the monasteries, the wars of religion and the civil war, but we don’t often make the connections with what that means for the collections we have in our museums – why so little survives and so much was destroyed,” she said.
The centrepiece of the Tate Britain exhibition in October will be “Statue of the Dead Christ”, one of the most important surviving British examples of pre-Reformation sculpture. It is the first time the work has been lent out by the Worshipful Company of Mercers, an ancient guild in the City of London that discovered the statue hidden beneath the floor of its chapel during post-Blitz rebuilding work.
The battered but striking 16th century sculpture, showing Christ stiff with rigor mortis and bleeding from his wounds after his removal from the cross, is thought to have been attacked by Protestants during the Reformation then buried to protect it from further harm.
Speaking at a media conference at the Mercers’ Hall on Friday, Tabitha Barber, Tate Britain curator, said: “Confronted by the statue today, its emotional impact is still such that the danger of such images feared by 16th century reformers … the sinful worship of an image instead of God – is near enough to be imagined.”
The show will include fragments of monuments that fell victim to politically motivated attacks, including a statue of William III by Restoration sculptor Grinling Gibbons that was bombed in Dublin in 1928 and 1966. Female portraits by Victorian artists Edward Burne-Jones and John Singer Sargent, slashed by militant suffragettes in 1913 and 1914, will also feature.
Art that provokes outrage over its aesthetic merits is represented by Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII”, the so-called “pile of bricks” that was vilified by the press and physically attacked after its purchase by the taxpayer-funded Tate in the 1970s.
The exhibition announcement comes after two recent attacks on art believed to be committed by members of Fathers4Justice, the campaign group. “The Hay Wain”, John Constable’s most famous work, was defaced in the National Gallery last month, shortly after the spray-painting of a Ralph Heimans portrait of the Queen in Westminster Abbey.
Ms Curtis said the Tate Britain exhibition would focus on art that had been carefully chosen to make a certain point, rather than “random” attacks on works. “It’s very much about a deliberate campaign in which the art matters to the people using it. The suffragettes had a stake in the representation of women. It wasn’t any art – it was quite close to … what they stood for.”
Measures to protect art from attack have changed little over the past century, she said. In the suffragette era, mugshots of potential attackers were handed to gallery assistants; today, “troubling” individuals are often made known to staff.
Protecting collections is a balancing act for curators, said Helen Scott, an art historian who has studied attacks on works. “Galleries can raise their security levels, but there’s a danger you alienate the public when it becomes difficult to see the works of art because they’re encased in glass,” she said.