Sylvia Pankhurst and Art Under Attack @ The Tate Britain!

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Tate Britain
E. Sylvia Pankhurst

I went on an interesting little trip to the Tate Britain in London today. I had a couple of errands to do (such as exchange a top and buy my dad’s birthday present) so I thought I would treat myself and pop into the free BP Spotlight Exhibition on Sylvia Pankhurst (the fact that these art exhibits are ‘supported’, though sponsored is probably more accurate, by huge corporate oil companies is something Margaret Atwood talked about when I went to go and see her at the Southbank Centre, which has also been heavily invested in by another oil company, Shell). However, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition as I didn’t have a clue that Sylvia Pankhurst was such a talented and creative artist. Not only did she create the logo for the Women’s Social and Political Union, but Sylvia Pankhurst also drew realist portraits of female workers in harsh conditions and the article she wrote about her experiences of being in Holloway Prison is also included in the exhibition, which was a fascinating read.

I studied part of the Women’s Suffrage movement during my A Levels and was fascinated by the topic and how it affects me personally (like every female in the UK) – it was probably the catalyst which spurred me in the direction of more feminist modules at university and, now that I think about it, I cannot believe that I had to wait until I was sixteen or seventeen years old for the national curriculum to teach me this!

I found an interesting book on the Pankhursts in the Tate Britain shop, written by Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family, and published in 2001. It remains one of the few biographies written about Emmeline, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst. In his introduction Pugh states that although the Pankhursts are familiar to us, they are also elusive and not much has been documented about their personal lives. Also, female biographers have had trouble placing the Pankhursts in the modern women’s movement as Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia all became disappointed with the results of winning the vote. I am intrigued to find out more about why this was the case and why Emmeline and Christabel, in particular, detached themselves from the women’s movement altogether. I also picked up a more contemporary feminist book by Natasha Walter, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, which was published in 2010 and speaks more relevantly to the culture and society we live in today.

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Whilst I was walking through the Tate Britain another exhibition also caught my eye (and fed quite nicely into the Sylvia Pankhurst exhibition I had just seen). Although the Art Under Attack Exhibition wasn’t free to see, it was definitely well worth the money. Exhibited until next Sunday, 5th January, Art Under Attack takes us on a journey through British iconoclasm, from the reign of Henry VIII to the Suffragette Movement to the Destruction in Art Symposium (of which Yoko Ono was a member).

In one of my modules at university I was unlucky enough to be given Susan Howe’s poem ‘A Bibliography of the King’s Book or, Eikon Basilike’, to present on (here is what it looks like and I’m sure you can immediately guess the problem I had with it). However, I found the ideas behind this very visual poem extremely interesting in the way it brings up the question of how important it is to know the author of a text. As it draws on the book purportedly written by King Charles I whilst he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded by Parliament, Susan Howe’s poem shows how important art can be in creating icons. The fact that the author’s eligibility was questioned does not make the Eikon Basilike any less powerful in its symbolism. I was delighted to see a (defaced) copy of the Eikon Basilike by Charles I and also John Milton’s Eikonoklastes, which was written in response to the Eikon Basilike to try and denounce its popularity. 

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The room devoted to the Suffragettes was also fascinating. Emmeline Pankhurst and her Women’s Social and Political Union chanted the slogan ‘deeds not words’ and this exhibit highlights the suffragettes who defaced and destroyed pieces of art in museums. One of the most notable suffragettes (who I remember learning about) was Mary Richardson who attacked the canvas painting of the Rokeby Venus with a meat-cleaver in the National Gallery in 1914. As a result all national museums in London closed for two weeks and the surveillance of suffragettes stepped up.

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Tate Britain

The exhibition fittingly ends with more contemporary artists who use the work of their predecessors to create new meanings to transformed pieces of art. It was a fascinating end to one of the most fascinating exhibitions I have been to this year in London. I would advise anyone who had the time to go and visit it in its final week.

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