The Beirut-born artist has explored the histories of vandalised art and in doing so reveals them afresh

VIEW COMMENTSByBen Luke17 March 2022D

iego Velázquez’s painting The Toilet of Venus – or the Rokeby Venus, as everyone calls it – was slashed with a knife in the National Gallery by the suffragette Mary Richardson almost exactly 108 years ago. The response to it in the press and among staff at the National Gallery used terms more akin to descriptions of a murder than an attack on a work of art: the Venus suffered a “cruel wound in the neck”, “a ragged bruise”; she was a “victim”.

When the Beirut-born artist Ali Cherri took on the role of artist-in-residence at the National Gallery and began his research into its collection, this clearly leapt out at him. In the end, he chose to focus his attention on this and four more victims in the gallery’s collection – a Rembrandt self-portrait, Barocci’s The Madonna of the Cat, Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf, and the Leonardo cartoon – paintings that have all been attacked by members of the public over the years.

It opens up fascinating territory: the violence itself, the nature of our attachment to the paintings, and the way these histories become hidden, through restoration and security concerns about copycat violence, among other things. And, of course, it conjures metaphors aplenty. Everywhere in the National Gallery are images of trauma – wounds on the body of Christ, beheadings in biblical and mythological scenes – and renewal in Resurrections. In past works, Cherri has also pondered the long history of museums as places where works have often been violently removed from their original locations, victims of colonial trauma, spoils of the violence meted out on communities. The National is less of a culprit – but still there are works dismembered from their settings here, shorn of their context and purpose.

Ali Cherri: If you prick us, do we not bleed? at the National Gallery review - vandalism made good

All of this feeds into a hugely engaging project in the National titled Ali Cherri: If you prick us, do we not bleed? – a series of historic-looking display cases with abstracted references to the five damaged paintings, in the form of found objects and sculptural creations. There are clear evocations of scientific and anthropological museums here, and Cherri nods to the history of cabinets of curiosities, the wunderkammern of European rulers and aristocrats of the past, filled with precious and strange objects, often gathered from distant colonial realms. Often, they’d include religious relics, and there’s also something of the reliquary about Cherri’s vitrines.

Cherri and the curator Priyesh Mistry are wise to have avoided too obvious a connection with the damaged works they respond to, displaying the cabinets instead in a line through two spaces in the Sainsbury Wing. This in itself is hugely novel in the National, because it only collects paintings – though sculpture richly informed so many of the pictures around Cherri’s installation, the pictures normally exist separate from any three-dimensional art. And there are lovely correspondences between Cherri’s works and those around them: where he riffs on the Poussin, he converts the French Baroque artist’s biblical dancers into a plinth with a sculptural frieze, like the antique friezes that originally inspired them. Nearby, Lorenzo Costa’s Virgin and Child with Saints is teeming with similar reliefs described in paint.

Above Cherri’s revellers on the plinth is a gilded lid topped not with a calf but a taxidermied lamb, another religious symbol, of course. But this one has birth defects, with two heads and many legs, a 1920s specimen Cherri found in Italy – like a mythological beast made eerily real. Cherri regards the lamb as representing the Poussin painting after it was vandalised with spray paint in 2011, and calls on an Arabic idiom describing yearning which, literally translated, describes how, in loss, one becomes more “beastly”.

This visual and thematic rupture and intrigue pervades the display. Responding to the Velázquez, Cherri includes in the vitrine a figure from non-Western culture, which are often called “Venuses”, with ceremonial carved markings, and pairs it with a 19th-century European sculptural bust, apparently severed from a body. But he fits the bust with a glass eye, which is reflected, like Venus’s face in Velázquez’s painting, in a mirror. All that remains of the Rembrandt in Cherri’s response is the head, dismembered and realised in a grimly coloured wax, almost mid-melt, and hanging on a brilliantly talon-like hook. In the Leonardo piece, a blown-up facsimile of the gunshot damage sustained by the painting looks like cracked skin around a sore.

The response to the saccharine beauty of Barocci is the simplest and perhaps the best: in the painting, St John the Baptist plays with a goldfinch, a symbol of Christ’s fate, touching it as it flies through the air. Cherri has a plaster hand from a classical sculpture clutching at the same bird, another example of taxidermy, but the bird is against the wooden base of the display case. The hand could be caressing the goldfinch, I suppose, but it looks more like it’s on the brink of crushing it.

Throughout, there are points of tension like this, moments that reveal the opportunity for close reading afforded to artists-in-residence. Cherri has grasped this to produce a deeply thoughtful project, perceptive and quietly irreverent, even subversive. It’s a fresh perspective on a collection I know well, yet one that enriches it – not just the works he chose to respond to, but a wealth of others beyond them.

National Gallery, to June 12,