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A Semi-Review of Tate’s ‘Art Under Attack’ Exhibition, with Suffragettes

2013 October 21

On 10 March 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson attacked Velasquez’ ‘Rokeby’ Venus with ‘a long narrow blade’ as it hung in the National Gallery. She stated that she had ‘tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst’. Emmeline Pankhurst – longstanding victim of the Cat and Mouse Act – had been re-arrested the day before.

The Rokeby Venus

The Rokeby Venus

In this rather hilarious report of the incident in the Times, the attack on the painting is described in almost human terms: ‘probably the most serious blow has caused a cruel wound in the neck’; there is ‘a broad laceration starting near the left shoulder’ and ‘other cuts […] cleanly made in the region of the waist’. The Keeper of the National Gallery, meanwhile, describes ‘seven distinct injuries’ and ‘a ragged bruise’ on the painting, in the language of a post-mortem.

Meanwhile, ‘prominent woman suffragist Mary Richardson’ (note that the noun there is ‘suffragist’, not ‘woman’) is said to have used an instrument ‘similar to [those] used by butchers’ – as if that somehow makes it worse than if she’d used sewing scissors or a hat pin. Clearly the writer considers the Venus as much of a piece of meat (albeit a sacred one) as Mary Richardson – who later said she ‘couldn’t stand the way the men visitors gawped at it’.

The Times counters by saying that this Venus is ‘absolutely natural and absolutely pure’ –  a strange claim that implicitly contrasts this ‘marvellously graceful’ women with the ‘woman suffragist’ who attacks her, in the process making this about much more than the destruction of art.

Art Under Attack

Unfortunately, little has changed in the gallery notes to Tate Britain’s exhibition Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm. There’s a whole room devoted to women (after several focusing on those other Wanton Destroyers of Art, the Protestants and the Irish), with accompanying hand-wringing notation:

In 1913 and 1914 the campaign to win women the vote became more militant and turned from window-smashing to attacks on art. Paintings in public museums and galleries – the nation’s cultural heritage – were attacked in order to effect to effect political change.  The militant women who carried out these acts of iconoclasm did so in the name of the Women’s Social and Political Union[.]

– Tate Britain, Histories of British Iconoclasm, Room 6 

It’s couched in the language of facts and neutrality but there’s a nasty undercurrent to the emphasis on ‘public museums and galleries’ and the little clarifying clause that this is ‘the nations’s cultural heritage’ (to which we will return). Together with the repetition of ‘militant’ and the rising pitch of hysteria in the movement ‘from window-smashing to attacks on art’, it’s clear that the writer is no friend to Mary Richardson.

‘Iconoclasm’ is, of course, the term used in the exhibition as a whole, although I find its application to the Rokeby Venus little better than the Times‘ assertion that the painting is ‘universally recognised by good judges as […a] masterpiece’ – it implicitly speaks from the perspective of a white, male, artistic elite, which has confirmed that this painting is ‘objectively’ of almost religious (‘iconic’) importance. In the process, the word comes close to justifying Richardson’s claim that an ‘outcry against my deed […] is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs. Pankhurst and other beautiful living women’ – the elite cared more for a painted woman than a living one.

Interestingly, that very perspective appears once again in the next room, where we have Carl Andre’s brick sculpture on display. This was attacked by a member of the public who resented his taxes being spent to acquire it for Tate because it wasn’t ‘proper’ art. Whatever you think about the piece, you can see his point. Yet today, we are told in the gallery notes, ‘Carl Andre’s sculpture remains admired by some and misunderstood by others’.

Photograph of Mary Richardson in 1914

Photograph of Mary Richardson in 1914

Conserving womanhood

I am by no means condoning the destruction of artworks, but the salient point for me is that the Rokeby Venus is ‘alive’ and well in the National Gallery to this day, and the other canvas victims of the suffragettes’ knives exhibited in ‘Attacks on Art’ are similarly unharmed.

In fact, while the gallery notes assert that paintings such as ‘In Prayer’ by George Frederick Watts (exhibited here) were selected for destruction by the suffragettes because of the problematic image of womanhood they presented, the effect of exhibiting them in their restored form is merely to reassert that complete, beautifully conserved image in the service of a narrative of ‘militant women’ attacking ‘the nation’s cultural heritage’.

About that ‘cultural heritage’. The next room but one in the exhibition focuses on Auto-destructive art, with examples from  Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono, a fragment of whose Biba dress (destroyed during a performance art piece) is exhibited here. She bought that Biba dress, so she’s entitled to destroy it, is the implicit argument here (from this point on the exhibition is all about ‘good’ iconoclasts, such as Gilbert and George, who had the decency to buy the art before they destroy it). The suffragettes, by contrast (like the Protestants and the Irish) were ruining it for ‘the nation’.

Galleries as a model for citizenship

The National Gallery – where the Venus was hanging in 1914 – was set up in 1824 to provide a space for the poor to view art alongside their social betters. In its original conception, there was a moral reform impetus behind it – many spoke of how museums accessible to the broader public would reduce birth rates and crime among the poor (who would now have a gallery to go to instead!), and there was talk of how, through exposure to their ‘betters’ – including middle-class women, for whom the gallery offered a genteel and ‘safe’ public space – the working classes would learn to regulate their passions and behave in a more orderly (quasi-middle-class) manner. In fact, national galleries – set up throughout Europe during the nineteenth century – were described as instruments in which to learn better citizenship.

You know the punchline, right? Yup – the majority of the people museums were trying to entice in and train up as model citizens – working class men, all women – did not have the vote. That’s the problem. These works may have been the ‘nation’s cultural heritage’, but the nation in question was an incomplete one. The Rokeby Venus didn’t belong to the Suffragettes. It belonged to art-loving, nude-gawping middle-class men.

The most interesting thing in this exhibition, for me, is the admission in the Suffragette room that the Suffragettes prompted as much ‘iconoclasm’ as they enacted. A WSPU pamphlet is exhibited on which Mrs Pankhurst’s face has been so violently ‘de-faced’ the paper has torn, exposing the words on the next page. In this age of Caroline Criado-Perez and Anita Sarkeesian, that should make us think.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. October 22, 2013

    I don’t wish to argue against beauty, or the natural human pleasure in beauty, although female beauty is a problematic concept. See this book, for example:

    But, on the subject of this exhibition (an interesting word, if we consider exhibitionism)…

    The attitude of these members of the art establishment to women’s suffrage is saddening but is, I think, scarcely surprising. The art establishment is defined by elitism, and as such it is unsurprising if they are not much bothered by the extension of basic rights to half of the population. Deep in their hearts, I suspect, these people (in general) think that the country would be a better place if the vote were restricted to people with refined sensibilities (however one might define that).

    ‘Art’ in its least objectionable sense is a close synonym for ‘skill’. ‘Art’, as opposed to ‘craft’ is created by a skilled elite, who were traditionally male. ‘Craft’ resided with a larger number of less valued people, many of them female.

    There is also the elite who are rich and powerful enough to commission and purchase art. It is interesting to note the usual title given to the Rokeby Venus. ‘Rokeby’ is the title of the baron who had the painting brought to England. It is also the name of his house — Rokeby Hall. The implication seems to me: ‘Rokeby — this is my title, this is my house, this is my Venus’ — I own them all. I am rich and I am powerful.’

    Also, today, we have the art elite who seem so dismissive of the struggle for women’s rights. They are defined by having sufficiently refined sensibilities to see that a pile of bricks is a work of art. I recall watching a member of this elite interviewed on television a while back. (My feeling is that the culprit was Brian Sewell, but I’m not certain.) He (it was certainly a ‘he’) said that a work of art was whatever an artist said was a work of art. The idea seems to lead to a circular argument — an artist is someone who creates art, and art is what an artist says is art. When the interviewer objected by saying ‘but suppose that I…’ the response was that it wouldn’t be art because the interviewer was not an artist. In effect, artists are no longer people with skills, but people on whom members of the art establishment confer the title ‘artist’. Wealth and power obviously still has its part to play because works of art change hands for obscenely large sums of money.

    In considering the title of the Rokeby Venus, I focused on ‘Rokeby’, but the Venus half is also significant. To the Romans, Venus represented an aspect of female divinity — a powerful figure whom feminists should be able to celebrate. Yet it seems unlikely that Velazquez, the artist’s patron, Baron Rokeby, or any of those with influenece at the Tate or National Galleries were (or are) devotees of the goddess Venus. Rather, they assigned and continue to assign the name of a once powerful goddess to a picture of a disempowered and anonymous model. I doubt if many people looking at the Rokeby Venus are placed in awe of female divinity. Neither, I suspect, do they bother to wonder who the woman in the picture was. What was her name? Was she wise? Did she believe that women should be better treated? Was she happy? Did she have children? Did she live into old age? More often than posing any of these questions, I strongly suspect, viewers continue to objectify her. The picture is surely a very expensive (when painted, when bought by Baron Rokeby, and now if it came up for sale) piece of erotica. It may be that the fundamental difference between erotica and pornography is class-based. Rich people (mostly men) have erotica, poor people (again, mostly men) have pornography.

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