The demonstration is the latest in a string of nonviolent protests that involve tampering with famous works of art
On Friday, in room 43 of London’s National Gallery, two young women opened cans of tomato soup and threw their contents onto Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting Sunflowers. The soup-throwers donned shirts displaying the logo of Just Stop Oil, an activist group that has been staging nonviolent demonstrations across the United Kingdom to protest the production of fossil fuels.
As the soup hit the painting, someone shrieked, and another person exclaimed, “Oh my gosh!” The two women then sat down on the floor and glued their hands to the wall below the painting as a bystander called for security. One of the activists, 21-year-old Phoebe Plummer, began to speak to the room.
“What is worth more—art or life?” she asked in an impassioned voice, her hand glued to the wall behind her. “Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people? 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.”
Statement from the National Gallery pic.twitter.com/DuZhTbAvbH
A van Gogh drenched in soup is the latest and highest-profile instance of climate activists tampering with famous works of art to call attention to their cause. In June, Just Stop Oil activists glued themselves to Horatio McCulloch’s My Heart’s in the Highlands at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Since then, members of the group have glued themselves to about half a dozen other artworks. They’ve been mimicked by activists in Italy and Germany, who have targeted works by Sandro Botticelli and Pablo Picasso.
The activists are demanding that their governments stop greenlighting the development and production of fossil fuels. In London, the soup demonstration follows a move from the conservative U.K. government, headed by Prime Minister Liz Truss, that allowed for a new round of oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and reversed a 2019 ban on fracking.
Mel Carrington, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, tells the New York Times’ Alex Marshall that the group intended to generate publicity and spark debate. She says they selected Sunflowers because they knew it was protected by glass and wouldn’t be damaged by the soup.
Alex De Koning, another spokesperson for the group, tells the Guardian’s Damien Gayle that the group’s choice to throw soup represents how “people are going to have to choose between heating and eating this winter, and that can be so easily avoided … [by] switching to renewable energies, which are currently nine times cheaper,” as seen in a video produced by the Guardian.
De Koning adds that “of course” he is worried about such a dramatic action alienating people who would otherwise support Just Stop Oil’s aims. “But this is not ‘The X Factor,’” he says. “We are not trying to make friends here, we are trying to make change, and unfortunately this is the way that change happens.”
The action was subject to an outpouring of criticism from people belonging to both ends of the political spectrum. Michael Mann, a University of Pennsylvania climate scientist, tells the Associated Press that he worries vandalism “alienates many people we need to bring into the fold. People who are natural allies in the climate battle but will draw negative associations with climate advocacy and activism from such acts.”
Critics have called attention to the fact that Just Stop Oil accepts donations via cryptocurrency, an industry that has a devastating impact on the environment with its significant energy usage. The climate organization only accepts cryptocurrency donations through Ethereum, which has successfully cut 99 percent of its carbon emissions.
Others have pointed out that Just Stop Oil is funded primarily by the Climate Emergency Fund, which began with a grant from Aileen Getty, who inherited money that her family made with Getty Oil. A conspiracy theory circling around suggests that, through Getty, the oil industry is behind climate demonstrations like the van Gogh stunt. The Climate Emergency Fund has responded to conspiracies by pointing out that Aileen Getty was never in the fossil fuel industry herself and has dedicated her life to philanthropic ventures, many of them aimed at the climate crisis.
“The two of us are intensely aware that our families’ history with oil has granted us tremendous privilege” Getty co-wrote in a 2021 Guardian opinion along with Rebecca Rockefeller Lambert. “With that privilege comes the opportunity to contribute to a world where all have the chance to thrive.”
On Saturday, Holland and Plummer appeared in court and pleaded not guilty to a charge of vandalizing Sunflowers. They appeared with another Just Stop Oil activist, who was arrested after spray-painting a sign at New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police. District Judge Tan Ikram released the women on bail, on the condition that they don’t take paint or adhesives with them into a public place.
Just Stop Oil activists have struck again this afternoon, spraying paint over the iconic sign outside New Scotland Yard. pic.twitter.com/uTd5TZCfCv
BREAKING: Two @JustStop_Oil supporters have climbed up the Dartford crossing, shutting down the entire bridge and blocking oil tankers from oil terminals in Essex traveling south .#JustStopOil #DartfordCrossing #climatecrisis pic.twitter.com/JuzYt0HvSu
Ella Malena Feldman is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She examines art, culture and gender in her work, which has appeared in Washington City Paper, DCist and the Austin American-Statesman.