Soup hits the sunflowers
Hannah Fraser evaluates the ramifications and importance of activists’ efforts to draw attention to the climate emergency by hurling soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers has become the latest masterpiece to be targeted by the climate activist group Just Stop Oil. On Friday 14 October 2022, two members of the organisation threw tomato soup over the painting, which is currently being shown at the National Gallery in London, to protest the granting of new oil and gas licences to fossil fuel companies by the UK government. Following the incident, the National Gallery clarified that the painting was unharmed, which turned out to be the desired outcome all along.
Climate activists using artwork to amplify their message has become a trend in recent months. Sunflowers now joins the ranks of J.M.W Turner’s Tomson’s Aeolian Harp, Horatio McCulloch’s My heart’s in the Highlands and Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life as masterpieces chosen specifically to amplify climate activists’ messages worldwide – all without damaging a single one. Following the Sunflowers incident, Just Stop Oil explained “what we want to do is salvage a future where human creativity is still possible. We’re terrifyingly close to losing that, so we have to break the rules. And that means pushing cultural buttons to provoke, challenge and shock. There’s no other way.” And why Sunflowers? The answer is simple: “Van Gogh himself was a disruptor and a rebel.”
Sunflowers now joins the ranks of J.M.W Turner’s Tomson’s Aeolian Harp, Horatio McCulloch’s My heart’s in the Highlands and Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life as masterpieces chosen specifically to amplify climate activists’ messages worldwide – all without damaging a single one
So it seems that there’s more to this than meets the eye – literally. What the world saw that day was two young activists throwing soup at an internationally beloved piece of art, which made it seem as though they had destroyed an irreplaceable piece of cultural heritage. In fact, “the action was planned knowing it was properly protected” which means that there was never any intention to vandalise or destroy, but instead to make the world feel something; a profound sense of loss, even just for a second. The protesters know and understand the emotional power of art and how best to use that to their advantage.
Sunflowers’ natural subject matter meant that, when it was obscured, wecaught a glimpse of a world without our cultural heritage or the beauty of nature. Just as Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821) has become synonymous with a bygone pre-industrial era, Just Stop Oil has put Sunflowers in a new light and now it represents a world on the precipice of destruction. The metaphor for which can be seen in its depiction of fifteen sunflowers all at various stages between life and death.
The protesters know and understand the emotional power of art and how best to use that to their advantage.
Throwing tomato soup over Sunflowers could have many potential meanings. It is now part of the paintings story and, though it has now been wiped away, millions of people will now see the orange residue whenever they see it. Art Historian Lucy Whelan maintains that ‘so long as you keep throwing soup at protective glass around great art works, you will just keep proving again and again, that “the system” will save us.’ But perhaps the message isn’t that “the system” will save us, but that we can save ourselves. The fact that the soup can be wiped away and that Sunflowers can be seen again means that there is still hope in amongst the despair. We can save our planet, if we take care of it in the same way we do these beautiful pieces of art.