Stop ‘counterproductive’ attacks on famous paintings, says art world

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Paris (AFP) – Art professionals have denounced recent attacks on famous paintings by climate protesters as “counterproductive” and dangerous acts of vandalism.

While some of the major French and British museums interviewed by AFP, including the Louvre, the National Gallery and the Tate in London, are keeping a low profile on the issue, others are calling for tougher safeguards against such acts.

“Art is defenseless and we strongly condemn attempts to harm it, regardless of the reason,” the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague said in a statement.

It was in Mauritshuis that Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring was targeted at climate activists this week.

Two activists clung to the painting and an adjacent wall, while another threw a thick red substance, but the work was behind glass and undamaged and returned to public view on Friday.

Images on social media showed the activists wearing T-shirts reading “Just stop the oil”.

“How do you feel?” – asked one of them. “This painting is protected by glass, but… our children’s future is not.”

That attack came after environmental activists sprayed tomato soup over Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London and threw mashed potatoes at a Claude Monet painting at the Barberini Museum in Potsdam, Germany.

Bernard Blistin, president emeritus of the Pompidou Center for Modern Art in Paris, said all museum managers had been taking precautions against vandalism for a very long time.

“Should we take more? No doubt,” he said.

Bag ban?

Ortrud Westheider, director of the Barberini Museum, said the latest attacks show that “international security standards for protecting works of art in the event of activist attacks are not sufficient”.

Eco-fighters from the group Last Generation threw mashed potatoes on Monet’s “Les Meules” (Hay Bowl) at the museum.

The group later posted a video on social media, writing: “If it takes a picture – with #MashedPotatoes or #TomatoSoup thrown over it – to remind society that the fossil fuel economy is killing us all: then it will let’s give you #MashedPotatoes on a picture!”

Eco-fighters threw mashed potatoes at Claude Monet’s ‘Les Meules’ in Germany, but it too was protected by glass Handout LAST GENERATION/AFP

The museum said the painting was protected by glass and was not damaged.

In a similar stunt on October 14, two environmental protesters hit the world-famous Van Gogh work with tomato soup in London. The gallery said the protesters caused “minor damage” to the frame, but the painting was “unharmed”.

Remigius Platt, a security expert at the German museum association DMB and the Hasso Plattner Foundation, said the series of art attacks was “obviously a kind of escalation process”.

“There are different ways of responding, and of course all museums should think about enhanced security measures – measures that used to be very unusual for museums in Germany and Europe, which were perhaps only known in the US,” he said.

Such measures could include a blanket ban on bags and jackets, as well as security searches.

“The environmental disaster and the climate crisis are of course also a cause for concern for us… But we have absolutely no tolerance for vandalism,” he added.

The Prado Museum in the Spanish capital said it was “under alert”.

Conservation expert Jorge García Gómez-Tejedo told Spanish media this week at the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid that only the most vulnerable works are on display behind armored glass.


Adam Weinberg of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York questioned the activists’ approach.

“People put themselves on stage to draw attention to something, but you have to ask, does it really change anything?” he said at a discussion Wednesday in Qatar, according to ARTNews.

Tristram Hunt of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum expressed concern at the “nihilistic language surrounding the protests that there is no place for art in a time of crisis”.

Two protesters hit Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers with tomato soup in London, but the painting remained unharmed
Two protesters hit Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers with tomato soup in London, but the painting remained unharmed Just Stop Oil/AFP handout

“I don’t agree,” he said at the same event.

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak called on “all national museums to redouble their vigilance”.

“How … climate protection can lead to a desire to destroy a work of art? This is absolutely absurd,” she told the daily Le Parisien.

In May, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was thrown into the face of an custard pie at the Louvre in Paris, but the work’s thick armored case ensured it was unharmed.

Her attacker said he targeted artists who didn’t focus enough on “the planet”.

For Didier Rickner, founder of the online French magazine La Tribune de l’art, these protest actions are “counterproductive” and “the more visibility they are given, the more they will do it again”.

But “becoming habitual, these actions undoubtedly lose their power,” he argued.

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