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Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ Doesn’t Deserve to Be Covered In Soup (But Your Message Is Right)!

The museum can't really stop oil!

Amy Pond in sunflowers on Doctor Who

News broke that environmental activists from the group Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup over the Vincent Van Gogh painting “Sunflowers” that is hanging in the National Gallery in London. Van Gogh is one of the most famous artists in history for works like like “Starry Night,” which is hanging in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, as well as his sunflowers studies (there are eleven paintings with sunflowers as their focus). He did many different versions of them, one of which was featured heavily in the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” where Amy Pond jokingly hints that Van Gogh should draw them.

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Van Gogh’s sunflowers are some of the most instantly recognizable art, people love his work, and making an environmental plea in a museum using a Vincent Van Gogh painting is … a choice! It’s not that I don’t understand the motivation. What happened was two activists entered the museum, threw the soup at the painting (which was protected by glass) and shared their message. They pointed out that families cannot afford soup or to heat up the can and the cost of living crisis is horrendous. The activists then appeared to glue themselves to the wall.

Per a statement from the National Gallery, the activists were later arrested.

If you want to be heard and get your message out there, this is certainly a way to start—Just Stop Oil achieved an objective of instant, worldwide attention. It is just a strange place to start because in my experience of how politics work, the side that doesn’t care about the environment is not typically the ones who would be angry that it was art on the line. And so many are rightfully protective of art and Van Gogh’s iconic work that many who might feel sympathetic to the message were outraged by the stunt-like action—especially since many only saw headlines and tweets about the soup-throwing, and not the follow-up that the painting was undamaged.

It doesn’t really have anything to do with Van Gogh

On one hand, they’re trying to make the point that art doesn’t deserve to be saved and valued more than people and the environment. This is correct! But at the same time, those who refuse to listen or act aren’t really going to be the ones who care about what happens to a Vincent Van Gogh painting.

The two also didn’t deserve to be arrested. The minute the painting was fine, they should have been escorted out of the museum and that should have been that. Both sides got what they wanted. The activists got their message out into the world and the museum didn’t lose a painting. No harm, no foul.

But it really just … doesn’t make a lot of sense as to why the Sunflowers painting was the one targeted. I feel like there were plenty of artists and artistic subjects in that museum who deserved to be taken down with some soup but the man who clearly loved nature feels just like an odd choice. He’d be on your side, I think! And maybe that was the point—that those who refuse to do something about it shouldn’t appreciate art from someone who would be angry? Why they chose Van Gogh is unclear, but still, it sure was a spectacle that generated a lot of attention. Hopefully it won’t spark a wave of copycats, because this sort of stunt is unfortunately primed for our TikTok age.

The two young activists didn’t deserve to be arrested and now that the painting is fine, it’s important to note that their message is making its way around the internet. The museum just … can’t really do anything about it, and we don’t need museums to start airport security theater-levels of screening. I do think this is going to set a precedent for how museums protect art because without the glass protecting it, the painting would have been seriously damaged. But if this soup throw could mean that someone actually does something about the myriad crushing issues the activists were trying to draw attention to, I think Van Gogh wouldn’t be mad about it.

(image: BBC)

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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh.

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