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Gendered Transformations: Carla Zaccagnini’s ‘Elements of Beauty’

Emma Hedditch looks at Carla Zaccagnini’s recent book on the Suffragettes’ attacks on art, reading their iconoclastic actions as aesthetic gestures.
Carla Zaccagnini, Elements of Beauty, 2012, artist’s book, p.61, detail. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo

Carla Zaccagnini’s artist’s book Elements of Beauty (2012) lays out materials that evidence the violent and frequent attacks carried out by militant members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, more commonly known as the Suffragettes, on a number of artworks and artefacts in English and Scottish museums. The actions began in 1913, an election year on the brink of World War I, and at a time when Britain’s colonial and imperial power was beginning to wane.

Elements of Beauty reproduces the records of these attacks and their public circulation through newspaper clippings, police surveillance photographs and writings in the Suffragettes’ own newspapers, Votes for Women and The Suffragette. This narrative produced a new subject, a disobedient and defiant white and predominantly middle- or upper-class female person fighting for enfranchisement. During the late Edwardian era, attitudes towards social issues, including women’s position in society, were starting to change, but a rigid class system was still firmly in place, as were colonial and nationalist prejudices, despite earlier abolitionist success. Women were highly affected by moralizing attitudes around sexuality and abortion, poor working conditions and lack of access to education. The Suffragettes were fighting for women to have the right to vote, a right that was initially restricted to women who held property: in 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women aged over 30 if they or their husbands were homeowners. It wasn’t until a decade later that the Equal Franchise Act passed, finally giving all women over 21 equal voting rights with men. Such delay in the implementation of universal suffrage mirrors the power imbalance in the Union: the organisational voice of working-class women became subsumed under that of the more wealthy figures who set themselves up as representatives of the Suffragettes’ movement.

Undoubtedly at leadership level those higher up the social ladder dominated. Suffrage leaders were usually married to wealthy men or belonged to wealthy families and were undeniably middle or upper class. In a political movement, which relied upon the unpaid work of women, only those who were economically independent or married to men who were financially secure could afford to engage in political action. 01

Elements of Beauty does little to address the questions of class domination, race and nationalism in the movement, or to see these as intersecting with the question of gender as it is viewed within a contemporary feminist lens. The book compiles primary sources around each of the Suffragettes’ actions, organised chronologically from the first attack at the Manchester Art Gallery in April 1913 to the last one at the National Portrait Gallery, London in July 1914. The description of each act of protest begins with reproductions 
of the artworks before they were damaged, followed by police surveillance photographs of the perpetrators of the attack and newspaper clippings, which often feature images 
of the works after they had been harmed. Using the same typography that identifies
 the location and date of the attacks in the left margin of each spread, Zaccagnini has imprinted a dateline of her own location and time — ‘São Paulo, 21 August 2012’ — on the colophon, firmly aligning her project with the Suffragettes’ attacks while also leaving open the question of whether her intervention is a continuation or an interrogation of the actions it reproduces.

Zaccagnini writes that the readings put forward in the book are ‘centred in the imaginary formed by these actions of image destruction’; 02 and so, to this end, I want
 to ask, what is this imaginary, formed by the reader through the historical narrative of the Suffragettes and their specific form of image destruction? If, as art historian Dario Gamboni has argued, ‘attacks on works of art have the potential … to shed light on the so-called normal attitudes from which they are distinguished’,03  what is the dissident subject formed in these actions? Is it a subject who responded efficiently and intelligently to oppressive structures in society? And is the imaginary constructed by Zaccagnini connected to a desire to be able to act similarly today?

At the time of the attacks on art, there was a focus in the Suffragette campaign on contesting the imprisonment and brutal treatment of political prisoners, in particular Suffragette founder Emmeline Pankhurst, who, like many other women in prison, was being force-fed in response to her hunger strike. Force-feeding was common practice,
and it only stopped when a prisoner became too ill, at which point she would be released under the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act of 1913, commonly known
as the ‘Cat and Mouse’ act, only to be re-imprisoned once she was well again. Following many years of campaigning, throughout the country and in solidarity with women in 
the workers’ unions, the Communist Party and the anti-fascist movement, Pankhurst
was arrested repeatedly for smashing shop windows throughout the Suffragettes’ arson campaign that had begun in 1912. She was arrested again in February 1913, after claiming responsibility for the Suffragettes’ bombing of the future home of then-Liberal cabinet member David Lloyd George, and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison.04In response to her imprisonment, on 10 March 1914 the Suffragette Mary Richardson hacked with a meat cleaver Diego Velázquez’s Venus en el espejo (The Toilet of Venus, 1647—51), also known as the ‘The Rokeby Venus’, a painting of the mythological beauty
in front of the mirror. After committing this, the Suffragettes’ best-known iconoclast action, Richardson announced in a statement later given to the press,

Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. […] So long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women and until the public cease to countenance human destruction, the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy. 05

Richardson was sentenced to six months in prison and, badly damaged, the image of the reclining nude was later restored by the National Gallery.

The connection between the violence done to the beautiful Venus and the implicit violence to ‘beautiful living women’ underscored how the Suffragettes’ struggle also related to women’s bodies and how they were policed. Again, class and social issues made the agenda around women’s rights a mixed bag of progressive and conservative impulses. Within the Suffragette movement the struggle around sexuality was led by Millicent Fawcett, who promoted the social purity movement, which advocated raising the age
of consent and opposed the legalisation of prostitution, thus aligning the fight for the enfranchisement of women with conservative values on sexual morality, many of which persist today. In the fight, then, a white, middle-class feminist subject was produced, which flattened the differences between women (but generated individual heroines in Pankhurst, Richardson and Fawcett — all of whom came from privileged backgrounds). For women who were to become political prisoners, however, questions of race, class and social standing were crucial, since justice was unequally dished out according to privilege, and the imprisonment of less well-off political prisioners was not always met with such visible and public struggles as the attacks on art that followed Pankhurst’s arrest.

Less-recognised Suffragettes included Lillian Forrester, Annie Briggs and Evelyn Manesta — a wife, a housekeeper and a governess, respectively — who smashed the protective glass of thirteen paintings at the Manchester Art Gallery on 3 April 1913,
the same day that Pankhurst was sentenced, performing the first of the Suffragettes’ attacks on art. The gesture of breaking glass seems symbolic of the Suffragettes’ desire to smash protectionism and property, linking the working-class struggle with the feminist struggle for emancipation and self-determination. Briggs was later acquitted, Forrester sentenced to three months in prison and Manesta to one.

Carla Zaccagnini, Elements of Beauty, 2012, artist’s book, p.51, detail. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo

It is worth noting that the attacks on art were not always consistently related to the content of the artworks themselves (that is, not all of the paintings slashed depict female subjects), as has been the case in more recent politically motivated iconoclast actions,
such as the decapitation of public sculptures of Stalin after the fall of communism or the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. Alongside Pre-Raphaelite paintings of classical inspiration depicting highly eroticised women,
such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Astarte Syriaca (1876—77), a somewhat orientalist representation of Venus, or Edward Burne-Jones’s Sibylla Delphica (c.1886), a full-body portrait of Apollo’s priestess dressed in classical drapery, Briggs, Forrester and Manesta also attacked landscape paintings by John Everett Millais, such as Birnam Woods (1889) and A Flood (1887), which depicts a baby in a cot floating in water, and William Holman’s The Shadow of Death (1873), a portrait of Christ as a carpenter. Suffragette Mary Wood slashed John Singer Sargent’s 1913 portrait of Henry James at the opening of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy on 4 May 1914, and reportedly stated, once in prison, that ‘if the picture had been painted by a woman its value would have been less than 700 pounds’.06 Aside from its value, Sargent’s portrait symbolised an ‘overbearing image of male authority’,07 suggesting that the Suffragettes’ attacks were aimed at the dominance and stature of male artists as much as at idealised depictions of women. A few days later, ten glass cases were smashed at the British Museum, including one that held an Egyptian mummy and another in the Asian section, in which a valuable saucer was broken.
With this action, the Suffragettes may have intended to break an illusion of protection and to denounce the colonial appropriation of loitered objects in the museum. Overall, it was the gesture of art destruction itself that the Suffragettes were pursuing — the destruction of precious items of market and cultural value and, of course, of beauty.

In contrast to the idea of beauty associated with many of the artworks attacked, the Suffragettes were regarded by the public as animals. One of the articles from the pamphlet Votes for Women(1914), for example, includes a quote from a visitor describing the Suffragette attackers as beasts.

I could only see the horribly mutilated canvas — a ghastly, sickening sight, and the more hideous threatening faces, especially the distorted face of one very old man, who shook his aged fist and seemed straining to strike the woman’s face. ‘The beast!’ said that elegant, cultured crowd. ‘The wretch! She ought to be hanged!’ ‘Ugh, the beast!’ And they stormed with their fists again, pursuing her while the detective led her to the door and she passed out of sight. 08

Coincidentally, Pankhurst described herself, after the experience of prison, ‘like a human being in the process of being turned into a wild beast’.09 If we have questions about image production and circulation as gendered (Teresa de Lauretis would say, ‘the representation of gender is its construction’),10 then does justice or the image need to be beautiful? Can the imaginary be a beast or an action? Zaccagnini’s narrative deals primarily with the destruction — or transformation — of artworks, but it also hints at the destruction of the prior construction of an idealised notion of woman, and the construction of gender more generally, which is itself always destructive or violent. By focusing on how both the Suffragettes’ actions and their own images were mediated in newspapers at the time, it reflects upon the depiction of the Suffragettes as violent and irrational in direct contrast to the controlled and obedient behaviour that was expected of women at the time. Police surveillance photographs depicting some of the arrested women in prison, primarily used as identification tools for police officers stationed at the key museums and galleries where attacks could potentially take place, also formed part of the construction of the new political subject, and testify to the beginning of the
 use, and manipulation, of surveillance and police photography as evidence. In the police photograph of Forrester, for example, the arm of the policeman holding her around the neck was masked out when the image was reproduced in the media. In contrast, the attack on Sargent’s painting was deemed important enough to warrant a diagram in The Daily Graphic showing where cuts entered Sargent’s painting; its high level of detail suggested the public outcry at the damage of a valuable cultural asset.11

Carla Zaccagnini, Elements of Beauty, 2012, artist’s book, p.36, detail showing the original photograph of Evelyn Manesta at Holloway Prison, London. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo

Whilst the Suffragettes were not explicitly attempting to make art, they were highly self-conscious of their aesthetics, or what Cildo Meireles would call their ‘insertions into ideological systems’.12 They had previously smashed shop windows in public to signal that they were seeking to break the surface of the private realm, as well as to make noise. It is such fascination with gesture that Zaccagnini’s book explores. The title Elements of Beauty is slashed diagonally on the cover, and slash marks further accumulate in the layout on the articles from the Suffragettes’ own newspapers, reproducing the action of the movement rather than the actual destruction.

Elements of Beauty is explicitly about making art, and expanding forms of art to include different power relations between artist and viewer through the use of a portable and distributable forms. As with her other projects that pursue forms appropriate to their subjects, Zaccagnini here employs modes of production and circulation that allow the viewer to have a direct relationship to the artwork: it is a work ‘you can take in your hand, bring home, put in your pocket, carry around, close and reopen, keep quiet or reactivate’. 13 The book is an edition of 150 and as an artwork it functions under an idea of scarcity, with a reduced potential for circulation, reflecting the transformation of art and culture from public sphere to private domain, while also distributing materials from a number of public archives.14 Significantly, in choosing to circulate archival materials and to mark with blank spaces the events that were not documented or the images that are not reproducible due to copyright restrictions, Zaccagnini reveals — in a subtle way but with damaging effects — how this information has become privatised.

Neither the actions of the Suffragettes nor their reproduction in Zaccagnini’s book could be said to seek, then, the abolition of art; instead, both use its forms and position 
in society to comment upon social and political conditions. Elements of Beauty follows
 the traces of the crimes in the Suffragettes’ actions — crimes complicated by motivation, power and entitlement over others’ production and potential market value. Zaccagnini’s book works with the idea that the actions of the Suffragettes can be seen as activating artworks and seeks to bring their content and position to the fore in relation to the 
image politics of our time. This leaves the book itself as an artwork in an alternate state,
an elliptical proposition that doesn’t fully advocate the actions of the Suffragettes but is nonetheless aligned to their aesthetic. It’s fascinating to realise that the subtle reformulation and circulation of the material in Zaccagnini’s book might in fact be another transformation: not the destruction of specific artworks but the destruction of the idea of a fixed form — putting into circulation the idea that artworks should be changed by whomever might want to assume that task.


  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).
  • Paula Bartley, ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’, History Review, December 1999, available at (last accessed on 11 March 2014).