Two activists protesting against fossil fuel extraction threw two cups tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece ‘Sunflowers’ at the National Gallery in London on Friday. Following this, they glued themselves to the museum’s wall.
‘Sunflowers’ is one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery, and is thought to be the picture that van Gogh was most proud of. It was painted during a period of optimism for the Dutch artist, while he awaited the arrival of his hero, the avant-garde painter Paul Gauguin.
The perpetrators were members of Just Stop Oil, a group that seeks to stop oil and gas extraction in Britain. In a video of the incident posted by The Guardian, the activists can be heard delivering a speech in which they ask visitors whether they “are more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?”
One protester also shouted, “Is art worth more than life? More than food? More than justice?” and was quoted in their official press release. The stunt quickly went viral, garnering global attention. Numerous social media users voiced concern for the painting’s condition. However, the National Gallery said via a statement that the piece was unscathed save for “some minor frame damage.” The statement also stated that the activists had been detained.
In an interview with The New York Times, Mel Carrington, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, said that the group’s intention had been to generate publicity and to create debate around the climate crisis and the actions needed to stop it. She also said that van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ had nothing to do with climate change. It was simply “an iconic painting, by an iconic painter”. The intention was to generate headlines by targeting an “iconic painting”.
Damaging astronomically valuable artworks as protest over political and social issues is nothing new. Earlier this year, DaVinci’s Mona Lisa (a common target for protest) was smeared with cake by a man disguised as an old woman in a wheelchair. When he got close to the artwork, he threw the cake and yelled, “Think of the Earth, people are destroying the Earth!”. Publicly vandalising priceless works of art is a surefire way to get people’s attention, but it could also border on gimmicky and extremely disrespectful. It can also become counter-intuitive, as it draws more attention to the act in itself instead of the message.
Some online discussions certainly seemed to think so. Twitter users took to social media to comment upon the futility of the van Gogh act. They deemed the activists as unhelpful and privileged.
deleted my van gogh soup take, not worth the trouble. i will say a more effective form of nonviolent protest i’ve seen is in france. union sewage workers shot raw sewage into politicians offices from open windows to protest rising gas prices, should maybe take notes there
— transgender marx (@JUNlPER) October 14, 2022