In February 1976, a visitor to London’s Tate Gallery took out a bottle of blue food dye and poured it over Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII” (1966) -- an orderly stack of 120 sand-lime firebricks.
The visitor later declared that as a British taxpayer, he was enraged to see public money spent on a pile of bricks.
“Equivalent VIII” is now a centerpiece of Tate Britain’s new show on cultural vandalism, “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm.” The exhibition strives to be as complete as possible, spanning five centuries and documenting assaults on religious art and political portraiture as well.
One glaring omission: No mention is made (except in the catalog) of Tate Modern’s own recent brush with vandalism. In October 2012, a Russian artist-activist painted inscriptions onto one of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals, doing enough damage for the painting still to be in conservation today.
“Art Under Attack” starts out by tracing British idol-bashing all the way back to Henry VIII and his break with Rome. Religious iconography becomes so reviled that it’s believed more than 90 percent of medieval sculptures are wiped out.
A few surviving pieces from the period are in the show: bits of shattered glass, books with saints’ faces scratched away, and a life-sized “Statue of the Dead Christ” (c. 1500-20) with its hands and feet chopped off.
Strikes at political imagery are up next. One vitrine contains what’s left of a statue that George Washington’s troops toppled (Joseph Wilton’s figure of George III). Nearby are photographs of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, which had its top blown off in 1966 by Irish militants.
Among history’s most vicious vandals were the suffragettes; Their actions are remembered in the exhibition’s best room. A photograph from 1914 shows Velazquez’s reclining “Rokeby Venus” (1647-51) with slash marks across her back: She was attacked by a certain Mary Richardson in protest at a fellow suffragette’s jailing.
Then comes John Singer Sargent’s elegant portrait of Henry James. It too was targeted by a suffragette, who in 1914 whipped out a cleaver and left gashes across the novelist’s face. A photograph of the damage hangs on the same wall as the perfectly restored original.
Andre’s bricks are in the final rooms. They’re shown with other previously defaced works, notably Allen Jones’s “Chair” (1969) -- a topless, leather-clad mannequin lying on her back with booted legs in the air and a cushion resting on her thighs.
“Chair” was targeted by two feminists in March 1986 who poured paint stripper over the S&M mannequin’s face and shoulders, leaving her with what looked like third-degree burns.
The exhibition ends with examples of artists themselves engaging in iconoclasm: by wrecking something (such as the piano that Raphael Montanez Ortiz smashed for a 1966 art symposium) or by messing with existing works. Jake & Dinos Chapman, for instance, doodle over period portraits, making their subjects look grotesque.
As often with themed Tate Britain shows, you come away wishing the museum’s brief extended beyond the U.K. After all, the best examples of art vandalism are to be found elsewhere: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” has sustained acid, rock and spray-paint attacks, and Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” has twice been knifed.
“Art Under Attack” is still a thought-provoking overview -- and a reminder to museum directors that gallery security is not to be taken lightly.
(Farah Nayeri is a writer for Muse, the arts & leisure section of Bloomberg News. The views expressed are her own.)
“Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm” is at Tate Britain through Jan. 5, 2014. For more information, go to http://www.tate.org.uk or call +44-20-7887-8888.
Muse highlights include Catherine Hickley on music, Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night