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Iconoclasm: Tate Britain to showcase art that has been blown up, defaced, dyed and mutilated

The first exhibition exploring the history of British iconoclasm opens in October

The Tate is to display artwork that has been defaced, chopped into pieces, blown up and melted for an exhibition into iconoclasm, the first in Britain. One work that will not be part of the show, however, is the painting by Mark Rothko defaced at Tate Modern last year.

Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm will open at Tate Britain in October and among the prized objects on show is Statue of the Dead Christ, which lay hidden for 500 years.

The show will look at “deliberate physical acts against works of art” but only those backed by ideology. The curators wanted to distinguish the pieces from acts of random vandalism.

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Clearly they include the attack on the Rothko in the latter category. Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, said: “We wanted to look at things that had gathered significance over time and not something that happened to be topical.”

The subject of iconoclasm was something Tate Britain “ought to do,” she said and had thought of it as a potential exhibition before she took over at the gallery three years ago.

She said: “There has been no exhibition to explore that history of iconoclasm in Britain,” adding it was a “very hard exhibition to make. Often it’s dealing with fragments or things that were hidden.”

The Statue of the Dead Christ, dated to between 1500 and 1520, was described as one of the most important sculptures to survive the destruction of religious reformers in the 16th century.

It was discovered in 1954 at the Mercers’ Hall in the City of London under the floor of its chapel during clearance following bomb damage. The work is missing its crown of thorns, arms and lower legs.

Curator Tabitha Barber pointed to the importance of the work, saying: “It’s a difficult statistic to quantify but historians have estimated that over 90 per cent of pre-Reformation imagery has been lost and much of what remains is in a mutilated state.”

As well as works damaged following the Reformation, the exhibition will include two paintings damaged by Suffragettes: Edward Burne-Jones’s Sibylla Delphica and John Singer Sargent’s Henry James.

Also included is the head of a statue of William III blown up in Ireland, a portrait of Oliver Cromwell hung upside down by a monarchist supporter and Carl Andre’s work known as the “pile of bricks” which was damaged with blue dye by an angry member of the public.

Ms Curtis does not think the exhibition will provoke further incidents. She said: “I hope it is not tempting fate. It’s a very serious topic and there’s been a lot of scholarly work on it in the last 20 years.