An unusual exhibition has opened in the National Gallery, looking at the times that paintings are attacked and if they should be repaired afterwards.

Paintings sometimes attract people who attack them, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for the glory, and sometimes because the voices told them to — and the art is hurriedly covered up and conservators spend months repairing the damage.

The National Gallery’s “artist in residence”, Ali Cherri has taken a look at this and his exhibition poses the question as to whether that damage should be repaired, or is it an essential element of the history of the painting. He is particularly interested in the emotional response to attacks, as people recoiled in horror, often analogising an attack on art as an attack on a living person.

It’s a doubly unusual exhibition, as galleries usually shy away from showing off damage, but also the National Gallery is the home of the two-dimensional art, the painting and drawing, but here, Cherri has created a set of sculptures instead. A series of cabinets each showing off his interpretation of how an individual work of art was attacked. The sculpture mirrors the damaged painting.

Attacks on art tend to be famous, and one of the most famous was in 1914 by “slasher mary”, who took a meat cleaver to Diego Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus. The descriptions given to the damage to the painting at the time, described the painting in living terms, as a victim with cruel wounds and ragged bruises. In response, Cherri has created a wooden representation of the decapitated Venus, depicting more like an ancient fertility goddess, but with slashes across her body. The head, a marble sculpture gazes back at itself in a mirror.

Rembrandt is here, as a distorted wax sculpture of his head, hanging more like the shrunken heads, the tsantsa created by some tribes as a warning to people. A plinth looks classical, but atop, rather grotesque in form and fact, is a stuffed lamb that died from severe birth anomalies, a death in birth as a metaphor for the damage caused to Poussin’s golden calf.

One of the more curious displays took the “bruise” caused by a single gunshot to Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John, and magnified it massively into something that looks more like an abstract pottery plate. Newspapers from the day that the attack took place sit next to the gunshot. The Leonardo cartoon that was attacked is in a neighbouring room. The attack long since covered up.

Individually, they’re interesting works of sculpture, but the story they tell gives them added gravitas.

It hopefully also opens up a debate about whether art should be repaired if attacked, or whether that moment should be conserved as a living element of the art’s long life.

The exhibition, If you prick us, do we not bleed? is at the National Gallery until 12th June 2022 and entry is free.

Exhibition Rating

★★★★☆

National Gallery
Trafalgar Square, London
WC2N 5DN

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One comment
  1. ChrisC says:

    Damage needs to be repaired as the initial damage can soon lead to consequential damage and ultimatly the destruction of the work.

    A small tear in a canvass can soon extend due to gravity or another weakness in the cloth pulling the tear apart because of uneven tensioning of the canvass on the stretcher.

    A crack in a sculpture can lead to its collapse and total loss hence it needs repair.

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