Taking scissors to a Van Gogh landscape, smearing paint over a Rembrandt, setting fire to a Leonardo drawing - even imagining such acts can make the stomach clench. We'll never own these masterpieces, cannot touch them, may never see them up close. Yet their destruction prompts outrage.
Galleries generally prefer not to discuss attacks on artworks for fear of provoking more of them. Besides, what is there to gain by dwelling on vandalism? Surely, these crimes are the antithesis of art - the culprits must be brutish or deranged.
But an exhibition at Tate Britain makes a forceful counterclaim: that certain assaults contain meaning and even insights into history and art. To advance that argument, "Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm", which runs through January 5, presents butchered paintings, decapitated sculptures and other damaged works in a survey of centuries of art vandalism.
Tate Britain's director, Penelope Curtis, says the show has already stirred more anxiety in the art world than she had expected. "The whole show is a concern." But Curtis says there is value in pondering the meaning of iconoclasm. "I suppose I'm interested in using galleries to think about difficult questions."
Unfortunately, Curtis notes, the issue has become "rather horribly topical" recently. Several attacks have taken place in Britain over the past year. But the Tate's curators persisted in their scholarly labours, surveying 500 years of assaults on British art and coming up with three chief motives: religion, politics and aesthetics. (They ignored "unthinking attacks", such as those by the mentally ill, or the destruction of a work to conceal an art theft from the authorities.)
One challenge for the show is relying on works that have, by definition, been ruined. Tabitha Barber, a co-curator, cites two stone fragments from Nelson's Pillar, a monument to the British naval hero that was blown up in Dublin by an offshoot of the Irish Republican Army in 1966. "You could walk past those pieces of stone and think they were just pieces of stone," she says. "But we've brought them into an exhibition … We're saying, actually these fragments have power."
The power of iconoclasm is especially resonant in Britain, where historical collections were drastically reduced by destruction. The Tate collection, for example, contains nothing dated earlier than 1545, largely because of the razing of religious art after Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church.
Among the most prized exhibits in the show is Dead Christ, a life-size sculpture from circa 1500-20 that depicts Jesus after the Crucifixion, with blood oozing from his wounds. Its attackers knocked off the crown of thorns, the feet, the right arm and left forearm - an attempt to neutralise the work that only intensifies the image of suffering.
Destruction during the Reformation and the English civil war in the 1640s erased centuries of artistic creation. At best, only 10 per cent of medieval British art remains, say the curators. Other damaged works include illuminated manuscripts whose images have been scratched out, a lush painted panel scored with blade marks and smashed stained-glass windows.
In eras that were not dominated by religious battles, art was threatened by politics. The public was often disinclined to honour grand works commissioned by the powerful. Statues of kings proved attractive targets.
Adherents of the women's suffrage movement also occasionally turned on art, choosing targets such as art galleries where privileged men might gaze upon nudes. In 1914, a woman attacked Velazquez's Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery, slicing the back of the recumbent nude, as photographs in the exhibition show.
Another victim was a portrait of novelist Henry James by John Singer Sargent at the Royal Academy. The attacker went for his face with a meat cleaver. "She got at me thrice over before the tomahawk was stayed," James wrote in response to a condolence note. "I naturally feel very scalped and disfigured." The work was restored by Sargent himself and appears in the show.
The exhibition sets out to show that political assaults on artworks are invariably statements about power. More recently, contemporary artists have experimented with defacement, taking images, changing them and presenting them as fresh works.
No matter how repugnant art attacks seem, the practice deserves study, says David Freedberg, a professor of art history at Columbia University and author of Iconoclasts and Their Motives (1985). "How is it that art matters so much that people should bother to destroy it? What is it about a work of art that arouses such passions? As I've always said, love of art and hate of art are two sides of the same medal," he says.
The New York Times