Published  04/10/2001

Monuments for destruction

Monuments for destruction

Image and Idol: Medieval Sculpture
Tate Britain, to 3 March 2002

Where there are monuments, there is the urge to destroy them, through history. The twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were inhabited monuments to 20th century commerce, visible symbols of global trade. They have now been destroyed in that ritual barbaric sacrificial act of desecration that now haunts the annals of history. There is a long and ancient pattern here, running from celebration to denial to desecration. Earlier this year, the giant Buddhist statues of Baniyan, from the 4th century AD, were exploded to fragments by the Afghanistan Taliban. Fortunately, they were not actually inhabited (except for a few bats) but it would have been of little consequence if that had been the case; like the twin towers, these giant towers went down a treat in a long-planned, institutional act of premeditated venom (and this was despite well-concerted efforts by the international museum community to save them and hand over the cash). Monuments – or rather fragments of such which remain – are now the subject of a timely exhibition running through till next spring, at Tate Modern.

The most influential event in English art was not the establishment of the Arts Council of Great Britain, or of Tate Modern (as some would think) nor even the 18th century Enlightenment, or the Renaissance which preceded it. Nor even the Blitz. (Getting warmer, however). No, it was in fact the English Reformation that drove out the Roman Catholic church and the architectural sculpture, shrines, and muniments that went with it. The event was almost wholly negative, as far as the visual arts were concerned (although choral music was somehow salvaged under various pretexts).

This devastating period had religious fundamentalists running round tearing down church monuments and religious shrines, sculptures, paintings, as part of an all-round cleansing and flushing of the English soul. As a result, fewer such artefacts remain in England than in any other comparable European country. At Tate Britain, which recognises the Reformation as the starting point of its chronological brief, an ambitious attempt has been mounted to link the fragments which do survive, to the contemporary visual sensibility. The sculptor Richard Deacon (a former Turner prize winner) has been given the task of establishing a mise-en-scene which fosters such enlightening comparisons of old with new. This is an interesting intellectual venture, but less than successful where it is obliged to address, rather than ignore, the symbolism which persists and which so infuriated the mediaeval ‘reformers’.

Whatever the effect, in the two main Duveen galleries allocated to the exhibition the highlights need little preliminary of this kind. The surviving pieces of a recognisable ‘Virgin and Child’ from Winchester Cathedral are so redolent of human warmth and compassion as to stand alone: they are well distanced in mood from the Eton College figure of St.George, which stands suspended in arrogance, so disdainful as to put off any would be desecrator (one of us, was probably the reaction).

The real message of this exhibition, apart from the enthralling beauty of the exhibits and their pathos, is surely a call for the Reformation event to be properly incorporated in Tate Britain’s permanent exhibition agenda. For example, understanding that lost holocaust helps even in our understanding of such English artists (recently covered by retrospective there) as Stanley Spencer, or indeed Michael Andrews. What indeed was the Reformation? Well, ‘not quite nice’, but not to be hidden away as has been the tendency in English history as taught at schools: don’t bring back the memories of horror.

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