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David and Art - “Tomato Soup and Mashed Potatoes”

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

If we think that great art is overlooked these days, just wait until someone attacks a famous painting.

On a bright Sunday in May 1972, a man with a hammer walked calmly into St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. He went to Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” a world-famous sculpture depicting Mary holding Jesus on her lap in the wake of the crucifixion, and he began to smash it. Onlookers were aghast, but that didn’t stop some from snatching up pieces of the broken marble—including Mary’s nose—which they presumably took home as souvenirs, apparently seeing nothing wrong with that.

In spring of 1914, just months before the outbreak of World War I, a woman at the British National Gallery in London took a meat cleaver to a painting by the great Spanish artist Diego Velasquez, leaving seven long slashes in the canvas. In June 1985, at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, a man attacked a monumental Rembrandt painting. He slashed it twice with a knife and doused it with sulfuric acid before he was wrestled to the ground. Restoration of the piece took 12 years.

Over the past 100 years or so, when a work of art is intentionally assaulted, there is usually one of two explanations quickly offered: either the assailant was mentally ill; or had a greater cause to which he or she wished to draw attention. The woman who attacked the Velasquez in London, for example, was a suffragette who said she was protesting the arrest of another woman who’d been speaking out for voting rights.

And now it’s tomato soup on a Van Gogh and mashed potatoes on a Monet. In London, members of the group “Just Stop Oil” threw two cans of tomato soup on Van Gogh’s famous painting “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery. They then super-glued their hands to the floor and awaited arrest. “We’re not asking the question, should everyone be throwing soup at paintings?” said one of them later. “What we’re doing is getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter.” The questions that matter in this case involve fossil fuel and its widespread damage to the environment.

A few days later at the Museum Barbarini in Potsdam, Germany, activists of a similar cause hurled mashed potatoes at a Monet painting called “Grainstacks,” after which, like their kindred spirits in London, they superglued themselves in place. The world is in a climate crisis, one said, “and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes in a painting.”

In neither encounter was the painting damaged as each was behind a plexiglass covering, so there’s no 12 years of restoration required.

The world has noticed these events. The activists appear to be targeting artworks with global resonance, said the New York Times, “hoping that notable names and paintings will garner more publicity.” They’re sharp enough to understand that art has the power to attract our attention when it appears in the headlines, even when it’s served with a side of mashed potatoes.