In this spectacular food fight, don’t mention the glass

“Climate Protesters Throw Soup Over van Gogh’s ‚Sunflowers’,” headlines the New York Times; only a few days later Forbes tells us: “German Climate Activists Throw Mashed Potatoes At $110 Million Monet Painting.” Soon after, in the Guardian: “Just Stop Oil activist tries to glue own head to Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It doesn’t matter if upon reading this we approve or are outraged; one reaction is practically universal: shock. Reading the first headline, we imagine sticky red liquid seeping into the cracks of that legendary yellow paint, perishable liquid contaminating an image meant to last forever. But we do not need to, because helpfully, photos already show us an explosion of red covering the Sunflowers. It looks like a crime scene, and as with other viscerally upsetting photos, it’s hard to look away. We start to fill in from memory what the rest of the painting, underneath all that soup, looks like, and wonder if we will ever get to see those flowers again.

Only the attentive reader discovers that both paintings, Sunflowers and Haystacks, are protected by a glass pane and that grave damage to these “priceless” (resp. “$84.2 million” and “$110 million”) images is unlikely. Then again, “Famous painting needed wiping” is a less exciting headline, which is why we don’t see it. It seems the media and the food-throwing climate activists appear to have at least one common goal: to amplify this act and generate as many clicks as possible.

A long history of loving attacks

The activists state so openly and with this, they place themselves in a long and very diverse lineage, from Suffragette to terrorist, who use an attack on a treasured image as a vehicle for their ideological message. In many instances, the attackers do not hate the image in question, quite the opposite: as Suffragette Mary Richardson stated after slashing a famous nude by Diego Velazquez in 1914 as a protest for the incarceration of Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”[1]

Therefore, the climate activists do not simply disregard art, rather, they are deeply aware of its value, and employ it to apply pressure to society. Attacking a work of art is such an effective strategy because you are not supposed to touch a painting, except very gently, wearing white gloves, after you’ve completed a PhD in art conservation. And because paintings are, in a sense, sacred, there is a whiff of heroism about it if you do harm them. A painting may not be able to punch you in the face, but it is protected by a powerful membrane of awe, which ensures almost everyone else looks at it respectfully, from a reverential distance. Cross that barrier and you have the world’s attention. So how intriguing that we see so little of the actual protective barrier, namely the glass pane that covers the paintings, in the photos and reports of these attacks.

The boomerang effect

The reason why an attack on art is irresistibly captivating is because it is so spectacular. The value of art, its beauty and inviolability, blend unexpectedly well with spectacular images of assault. An attack takes all the cultural and economic value such a work has, and boomerangs it back upon itself, resulting in a new potent imagery that hits you right in the gut.

It is also a spectacle in another sense. Let’s not be fooled by those action-painting splashes of soup and potato. This is a performance that looks wild and spontaneous but is calculated and pragmatic, just like most attacks on images are. The toppling of the Saddam Hussein monument in Baghdad´s Firdos Square in 2003 was planned like a play.[2] The blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 was teased and prepped for months before it actually happened. When French Revolutionaries were dancing around pyres of burning paintings of aristocrats, it looked like impulsive euphoria, but it was fully orchestrated.[3] Brutal? Yes. Spontaneous? Not really.

Carefully prepared vandalism

Let’s think about the many steps the activists had to go through. Not only did they go out and buy soup, hide it, prep their cameras and wait for the right moment—they also made several creative decisions.

The short video is an intriguing mix of informal internet culture—like an unpolished dance in a TikTok video—and ritualised formality. We first see the activists from behind. Moving in somewhat practiced but imperfect synchronicity they take off their brown coats, revealing white t-shirts stamped with black skulls whose eyes and mouth are made of the letters “OIL”. In suspenseful silence, we hear two soup-cans being opened with a click like a grenade being unpinned. Then, a crescendo of chaos, both visual and acoustic: a splash of soup hitting the painting, the incoherent shout of an invisible visitor and finally, the activists’ faces. They have the calm, almost beatific expressions typical of peaceful protestors and mediaeval saints and, like the latter, they kneel. Then, as in all good thrillers, there is the fumbling which is almost unbearable to watch. Fiddling with the caps of tubes, the activists manage to spread adhesive on the palms of their hands and, with a satisfying thwack that has the finality of a judge’s gavel, glue themselves to the wall underneath the painting. In what looks almost like a parody of product placement in movies, one activist shows us the can of Heinz tomato soup. “Security!!!” A desperate voice yells off-camera. The activist’s faces barely flinch.

Aside from the DIY choreography of the video, the act itself contains layers of symbolism. The Sunflowers as well as the Haystacks show a slice of nature. On top of that, Van Gogh was a famously tortured and idealistic artist, who in his lifetime only managed to sell two paintings, but then posthumously was turned into a money-making-machine, another target of commercialisation’s endless hunger.

Activists throw mashed potato at Claude Monet’s Haystacks on 23. October 2022. Source:

Activists throw mashed potato at Claude Monet’s Haystacks on 23. October 2022. Source:

Painting with soup

Speaking of hunger, soup is, of course, food. As one of the protestors said: “Is it [the painting] worth more than food? Worth more than justice?” The can of soup itself is reminiscent of the food-industrial-complex, enclosing a natural product in a container that will probably go straight to landfill. In addition, the attack appears to have created an association between iconic works of art. In a reversal of throwing soup on a painting, climate activists in Canberra drew over the glass covering Andy Warhol’s iconic soup cans a few weeks after the Sunflowers attack. Such acts are not only destructive, but also generative. They provoke the creation of new images of the splashed art, as well as spawning new, visually shocking, new attacks, all of which rapidly multiply across the press and social media, just like two years ago our feeds were flooded with images of toppled monuments.

Attacking a painting can in a sense re-awaken it, this was the reasoning of artist Tony Shafrazi, who spray-painted “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s Guernica in 1974. In the aftermath of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Shafrazi believed that the painting, though it was an iconic indictment of war, had lost its power. To his mind, his attack was actually a restoration.

Van Gogh’s approval

According to various media reports, the activists have not made themselves popular with their acts. “Both in the gallery and online, the reaction to Just Stop Oil’s demonstration was largely negative,” a New York Magazine opinion piece didactically tells “young people” to “dedicate themselves to tackling the technological barriers to decarbonization and formulating industrial policies that erode the political ones.” And yet, just because this action does not immediately inspire admiration, shock still creates an impact, it gets people talking. It makes us think about the desperation and risk taken by the activists. It makes us wonder, would Van Gogh, had he been alive in these times of climate change, have approved—or would he have admired the daring new composition and, perhaps, even have done the same?

Nausikaä El-Mecky



[1] See e.g. David Freedberg (2021). Iconoclasm. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 142.

[2] Max Fischer, The thruth about about iconic 2003 Saddam statute-toppling, in: The Atlantic, January 11, 2011,

[3] Michael Falser (2011). The Bamiyan Buddhas, performative iconoclasm and the “image of heritage”, in The image of heritage, ed. Andrzej Tomaszeweski, Simone Giometti. Firenze:  Edizioni Polistampa, p. 157–169.



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Gastautor/in (2022, 30. November). In this spectacular food fight, don’t mention the glass. doing | public | history. Abgerufen am 25. Mai 2024, von

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