Two climate activists from the group ‘Just Stop Oil’ have been arrested after throwing what appeared to be cans of soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers last Friday at the National Gallery, before gluing themselves to the wall. The activists are part of the ‘Just Stop Oil’ climate change group who have targeted numerous museums recently with similar acts, including the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Manchester City Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts. This is not the first time this year the group have targeted the National Gallery: in July two campaigners superglued their hands to the frame of John Constable’s The Hay Wain.
Other visitors to Room 43 of the National Gallery on Friday were unsurprisingly astounded by the climate activists’ actions, letting out audible gasps and shouts of shock. The activists, who were protesting the government’s inaction over both the cost-of-living crisis and the climate crisis, were heard saying, “what is worth more, art or life?” and “is it worth more than food? More than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” The activists’ use of a tin of soup seems to have been a purposeful choice referencing the cost-living-crisis, with one of the activist’s saying, “the cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis, fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.”
A spokesperson for the National Gallery has said that “there is some minor damage to the frame but the painting is unharmed.” Just Stop Oil said, via their Twitter account, “human creativity and brilliance is on show in this gallery, yet our heritage is being destroyed by our Government’s failure to act on the climate and cost of living crisis.”
Art world professionals have had strong opinions on the incident. Alex Needham, arts editor at the Guardian, said, “I don’t think doing this in a public institution is that smart. We all own that painting.” Others have suggested that Van Gogh was an inappropriate target for the group’s action. Ellen Walker on Twitter said, “I’m struggling to understand why destroying a painting of sunflowers done by Van Gogh, an impoverished man who was marginalised in his local community due to his mental illness, is the right target to make a statement about how awful the oil industry is.”
The Just Stop Oil website make it clear that the painting was behind glass, and therefore was unharmed by this incident.