it's soup season

Why Soup Sunflowers?

Two activists with Just Stop Oil tossed tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London. The painting is unharmed. Photo: JUST STOP OIL HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Two activists tossed tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers to make a point about the climate crisis, and, well, I’m guessing you might have questions about that. Per The Guardian, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland (ages 21 and 20, respectively) entered room 43 of London’s National Gallery on Friday morning, their “Just Stop Oil” T-shirts concealed under their jackets until right before the big soup. They hit the painting — which is kept behind glass and suffered no damage — head-on with two cans of bisque before gluing their palms to the wall. Plummer then posed one of the great existential questions, if not of our time then certainly of the smoking circle outside freshman philosophy class, to aghast onlookers.

“What is worth more, art or life?” she said. “Is it worth more than food? More than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”

Fair points, and also fair if you are still confused. Let me attempt to answer your questions.

What is Just Stop Oil?

Per its website, it is “a coalition of groups working together to ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the U.K.” Basically, Just Stop Oil wants to end the country’s reliance on fossil fuels not only because fossil fuels are helping to murder the planet but also because it sees fossil fuels as worsening a national cost-of-living crisis. Since late 2021, inflation, tax increases, and soaring energy prices are making it increasingly difficult for many people in the U.K. to get by. Just Stop Oil advocates for the government migrating to renewable energy sources, but the new prime minister, Liz Truss, has said she wants to escalate oil and gas extraction from the North Sea. So to make their point, its members are engaging in various acts of civil resistance, such as daily sit-ins in streets and outside government buildings throughout October. And, of course, they also souped this van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh was a big oil guy, then?

Van Gogh was a 19th-century artist who lived and died in poverty. He bears no connection to big oil that I know of, but he is most famous for his oil paintings, of which Sunflowers ranks among the best-known examples.

Why soup his Sunflowers?

Most likely because blasting Sunflowers with soup gets attention: Another member of Just Stop Oil sprayed paint all over Scotland Yard’s sign on Friday, but it’s the van Gogh painting you’re hearing about. As to soup’s specific symbolism, Plummer explained that “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.” On Twitter, the group warned, “Keep giving us new oil and gas, and you will keep getting soup.”

Artwork also seems to have become a target for the group’s public statements. In June, two other activists with Just Stop Oil glued themselves to the frame around van Gogh’s Peach Trees in Blossom, painted in Provence and on display in London’s Courtauld Gallery. According to CBS, they said they’d selected the painting for its link to the region, which was then mired in heat waves and drought. Around the same time, other demonstrators spray-painted “Just Stop Oil” next to a Horatio McCulloch landscape at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery. In both cases, the overarching point was that people readily pour time and resources into protecting and preserving art, but where is that energy when it comes to protecting and preserving the planet? “It is immoral for cultural institutions to stand by and watch whilst our society descends into collapse. Galleries should close,” one of the Peach Trees protesters said in a statement on the action. “Directors of art institutions should be calling on the government to stop all new oil and gas projects immediately. We are either in resistance or we are complicit.”

Which, sure, only it seems a little weird to focus so narrowly on the art world in a complaint about industries contributing to the global climate crisis. But again, you paste yourself to a painting and you get headlines.

And the painting is okay?

Yes! The painting itself is unharmed. The Guardian reports that the frame sustained some “minor damage” and that police arrested the activists, who’ve so far attracted a lot of ire online for endangering a beloved work of art. (The Daily Mail, ever helpful in this regard, has published photos from their social-media profiles.) But some witnesses softened once they learned the art emerged unscathed. “I support the cause, and by the looks of it, they are considered protests with a purpose of raising awareness and shocking [people],” onlooker Sophie Wright told The Guardian. “So long as they don’t hurt people or put people in danger, then I support them.”

Why Soup Sunflowers?