Soup Cans, Sunflowers and Suffragettes
The destruction of art in political activism has a long history. Can the end ever justify the means?
On a rainy morning in March 1914, a woman in a tight-fitting grey coat and skirt walked into the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square. Her name was Mary Richardson, and contemplating art was the last thing on her mind. Richardson had a plan, and she knew her actions would lead to her being escorted from the museum by the police.
Making her way through the building to gallery 17, Richardson eventually stopped in front of a canvas depicting a female nude reclining on a bed.
She immediately slipped out a meat cleaver concealed under her coat, smashed the protective glass and slashed the painting several times. The artwork was called The Rokeby Venus by the 17th century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, and it was one of the most famous paintings in the world. It had recently been purchased for the British nation after a high profile fundraising campaign to which King Edward VII himself had personally contributed. Running to intervene, the gallery attendant slipped on the recently-polished floor, which allowed Richardson time to damage the painting quite considerably.
As she was led away, bystanders heard Richardson shout ‘Yes, I am a suffragette. You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs Pankhurst.’ Richardson was referring to Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), the founder of the Suffrage movement and leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which was a women-only political organisation campaigning for the right for women to vote in the early 20th century.
Mrs Pankhurst was at that point on hunger and thirst strike in Holloway Prison after being jailed for her part in increasingly militant campaigning.
There was widespread condemnation from the media and the public in the aftermath of Richardson’s attack on this National Gallery treasure. The act was described as an ‘outrage’, and she became known as Mary ‘The Slasher’ Richardson referencing the crimes of the famous murderer Jack The Ripper. The general consensus was that nothing political could ever be achieved from this sort of wanton destruction of property, that it was ‘intellectual second-ratedness’ that led to these actions, and what on earth did votes for women have to do with works of art anyway?
The same arguments have been heard over the past few days in response to the attack on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at the National Gallery last Friday by two young activists campaigning for the political organisation Just Stop Oil. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: they walked into the gallery, opened a couple of tins of Heinz tomato soup, chucked it all over Van Gogh’s painting, and then glued their hands to the gallery wall:
Just Stop Oil are calling for the government to halt new fossil fuel licensing and production. Given the increasing climate crisis and the clear evidence of the destruction of our natural environment as a result of our fossil fuel use it seems reasonable that politicians should be 100% focused on investing in renewable energy sources, and that the government should find a way to wind down fossil fuel licensing and production as soon as possible.
There was no actual damage to the Van Gogh painting as it had a protective glass covering. And for that I think we can all be grateful. Nor has there been any damage to any of the other paintings that Just Stop Oil protestors have used as the backdrop to their political campaigning in the past few months. They have never intended to damage the art.
In that sense this generation of activists is different from the women of the suffrage movement who deliberately damaged several paintings over the course of 1913 and 1914. After one particularly brutal attack at the British Museum, where Chinese porcelain and glass mummy cases were smashed, the museum announced it would only admit women if they produced a "satisfactory recommendation from a person willing to be responsible for their behaviour".
It’s almost as though Just Stop Oil have read the histories of the Suffrage Movement and are textbook copying the campaigning tactics of the women who fought for their political freedoms one hundred years ago. Their various actions - blocking roads, running on to race tracks, locking themselves to things, defacing high value property - are following a tried and tested form of activism.
The hysteria around the actions of these young people and the vitriol directed at them from the media and the public is exactly the same as the response to the Suffragettes. The Arts Editor at the Guardian, for example, wrote on Twitter, ‘I don’t think doing this in a public institution is that smart. We all own that painting.’ Art historian Ruth Millington said, ‘Attacking one of the world’s most loved paintings will not gain public support, which is what is needed for real change’. And in online communities I’ve seen comments describing these women as ‘silly, ignorant spoiled brats’ and their actions as a ‘very stupid marketing ploy’.
Unfortunately, instead of the message getting through, the public see violence, hate, and vandalism. The cause that the Just Stop Oil activists are fighting for seems a reasonable one, it’s the way that they are doing their campaigning that people have a problem with. It’s clear that the British public is largely not on board with these protests, and they don’t think the ends justify the means. A research paper from 2013 suggested that we tend to hold negative views of political and social activists, particularly environmentalists and feminists. Perhaps that’s because they are telling uncomfortable truths in inconvenient ways.
I’ve stood many times in front of Van’s Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery, lost in his colour and thick swirls of paint. It’s a magical artwork. And it’s alarming to see it under threat like this. The historian Rowena Fowler pointed out in relation to the attacks on artworks by the Suffragettes that ‘it was not necessary to be an art lover or connoisseur to be disturbed by the threat to a valuable but vulnerable national possession; it was genuinely upsetting to see beautiful things spoiled and to find ‘great’ and ‘timeless’ works of art forced into proximity with the messiness of contemporary political conflict’. That’s exactly the feeling many people have about the attacks on artworks today too.
I don’t condone criminal damage or violence but I am on board with the necessity of bringing the urgent message of climate change to the public’s attention before it’s too late. How you achieve that without this kind of spectacle I don’t know. Although historians are divided on how much the militant tactics of the Suffragettes accelerated the change in the law that allowed women the vote in 1918, they did nevertheless bring the fight to the forefront of public discourse. Everybody talked about it. In response to the Rokeby Venus attack one supportive female reader of the Manchester Guardian wrote that ‘Every tongue in the kingdom today is wagging of the damaged picture and asking what it has to do with votes for women. The most eloquent of our utterances on the platform scarcely gets a line in the majority of newspapers’. Art had no connection with suffrage, but Mary Richardson’s act got people talking and thinking about it.
And that’s the point, isn’t it: it’s not that these young people want to destroy art. They want publicity, just as the Suffragettes did. And their tactics are doing exactly that. The Sunflowers attack was one of the top stories on the BBC last Friday night. They want to be headline news for a cause which frankly should be top of our political agenda. Because what’s the point in galleries preserving artworks if in a few decades’ time it’s all washed away in the flood anyway?
I do think these protestors really thought carefully about this action: here’s an interview with them In Frieze https://www.frieze.com/article/interview-just-stop-oil
Wow the similarities between the Just Stop Oil protestors and the Suffragettes! I loved the bit about the British Museum requiring entry for women to be vouched for by a respectable man. Maybe the National Gallery will start asking for young adults to be accompanied! In all seriousness, I am glad you've written this because ALL I've seen in the coverage about this story is patronising to those activists and in general quite negative about what they've done. This is a much more balanced view. I think when you point to similar stories from the past that show what has happened before, why and what the results were it helps to put it all in perspective.