National Gallery exhibition explores trauma through vandalised paintings

An exhibition inspired by the vandalism of five paintings while they were being displayed has opened at the National Gallery, in an attempt to explore how trauma can manifest itself in people’s response to museum and gallery collections.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? has been put together by the gallery’s artist in residence, Ali Cherri, appointed in 2021, who uncovered accounts of National Gallery paintings being vandalised while on display as he researched its archives.

He said he had been struck by the public’s emotional response to the attacks, noting that the damage was referred to in newspaper articles in similar terms to wounds, while some of the reports compared the gallery’s conservators with surgeons. Overall, he sensed an urge to heal and felt that people tended to personify artworks by suggesting that they can experience trauma and distress.

The research prompted him to take the title of the exhibition from Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice, the gallery said.

It described the exhibition as including mixed media, sculptural installations that “recall aspects of each painting and that imagine its life following the vandalism”. It added: “By translating each damaged work into a series of objects, Cherri reminds us that we are never truly the same after experiencing violence.”

Cherri, who was born in Lebanon and is based in Beirut and Paris, uses sculpture, film and installation to pursue the meaning of the built environment and its histories. He often uses archaeological relics and sites as a starting point to explore the processes of excavation, relocation and the museum classification of objects, animal artefacts, images and their narratives.

He said: “Giving a contemporary artist access to one of the world’s richest collections of paintings is a way of keeping the dialogue going and open for new kinds of engagement.”

The exhibition has been assembled in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing in the form of five vitrines reminiscent of early museum displays and cabinets of curiosity, surrounded by Renaissance paintings, many of which show wounds and suffering.

Cherri is the National Gallery’s second artist in residence since the launch of its modern and contemporary programme, after the appointment of Rosalind Nashashibi in 2019.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? will run from 16 March to 22 June in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery.

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