Sunflowers and Tomato Soup

Stacey Kaliabakos ‘23

Chief Opinions Editor

I would never dare to say I am particularly knowledgeable about art. I also could never refer to myself as an artist because I am admittedly very bad at drawing, painting, writing poetry, etc. However, I have always appreciated art. I remember that, when I was a little girl, my parents bought me a book that contained biographies of many famous artists and their work. I vividly remember the first time I read about Vincent van Gogh, immediately considering him to be one of the most fascinating historical figures I had ever heard of. Van Gogh was a Dutch Post-Impressionist artist who created over 2,000 works of art in his lifetime. He is known for his vibrant colors, expressive brushwork, and abstract style. Although he is famous to posterity, he never achieved success during his life and suffered from severe depression and psychological distress. He died at the age of 37, and it is disputed as to whether his death was a suicide or a murder (Buzzfeed Unsolved released a very interesting video about his death in 2019 called “The Curious Death of Vincent van Gogh”). 

Van Gogh’s art is now displayed in museums around the world and is beloved by millions of people. One such place is the National Gallery in London, a well-known museum that houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings. His “Sunflowers” in particular is on view at the National Gallery and has recently been brought to the front of the news– and not just for its status as a treasured piece in the museum’s collection. On Friday, October 14, two members of Just Stop Oil, a group that seeks to stop oil and gas extraction in Britain, threw two tins of Heinz cream of tomato soup at the painting, which is one of six surviving images of sunflowers that van Gogh painted in 1888 and 1889. The two activists then smeared their hands with glue and stuck themselves to the wall underneath the painting. One of them gave a speech in which they incredulously asked spectators if they “are more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?”

Of course, the event immediately went viral on social media. Viewers were primarily concerned with the painting’s condition, but the National Gallery maintained that “Sunflowers” had been covered by glass and was therefore unharmed. However, the frame it was in was slightly damaged by the wet soup. Additionally, the activists were arrested.

Mel Carrington, who is a spokeswoman for Just Stop Oil, said in a telephone interview that the activists’ intention had been to generate publicity for their group and to foster a debate around our current global climate crisis. She said that van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” had nothing to do with climate change, but that an attack on it would be sure to generate headlines. Instead, the choice of soup was meant to be a symbol: in Britain, because of recent rises in inflation, many people were struggling to pay fuel and food bills. Carrington said that, apparently, some could not even afford to warm up a can of soup. She declared that Britain’s government should be helping people deal with “the cost of living crisis,” instead of partaking in fossil fuel extraction.

Art is undoubtedly one of the greatest forms of expression humans are capable of. I believe that if the protesters truly wanted to spread awareness, especially inside an art gallery, it would have been much more productive to create a piece of art that embodies their message. Most people who go to museums regularly are going to find the underlying meanings of the art they are looking at. Additionally, if they are worried about poor people not being able to afford soup or afford to heat it, why waste soup by throwing it? It would have been better for them to buy cans of soup and donate it to food kitchens in London instead. Ultimately, it seems as if the Just Stop Oil activists were championing the right cause, but chose the wrong target, wrong image, and wrong method. The way it seems to an external audience is that this was a self-indulgent performance– not a direct action protest. Honestly, it would be better to throw a can of soup on a CEO of an extractive energy industry or to glue yourself to a coal power station. Making the statement where it would make sense would still grab headlines but would also not potentially destroy irreplaceable art or ruin the days of innocent people trying to enjoy their time at a museum.

Photo courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum

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