On Sunday, a Claude Monet painting was briefly covered in starch when climate protesters threw mashed potatoes at it. It was the latest in a series of art-related actions designed to draw attention to climate change and environmental destruction.
The painting, an 1890 work known as grinding wheelswas bought at auction by ART news Top 200 Hasso Plattner collectors in 2019 for $110.7 million. It is on loan from his collection to the Barberini Museum, the Potsdam institution where works from Plattner’s collection have been frequently exhibited since the space opened in 2017.
Generation Letztethe group of German activists who led the demonstration, said in a statement afterwards that “the painting was not damaged in action. Unlike the immeasurable suffering that floods, storms and droughts are already inflicting on us today as harbingers of disaster imminent.
The Barberini Museum also stated in a statement posted on social media that grinding wheels has not been damaged because the paint is “glazed”. The museum plans to return the work to view on Wednesday.
Activists from Letzte Generation said in comments to the media that the protest was intended to highlight the contrast between the idyllic nature depicted by Monet and the dangers currently posed to real scenes like this.
Aimée van Baalen, spokesperson for the group, said in a statement: “Monet loved nature and captured its unique and fragile beauty in his works. How is it that so many people are more afraid of damaging one of these images of reality than of destroying our world itself, whose magic Monet admired so much?
In video of the demonstration, two demonstrators pick up containers filled with mashed potatoes, sprinkle them on the painting and stick their hands to the wall under the work. All the while, the potatoes flowed onto the canvas, onto its surrounding frame.
The action was clearly meant to call back to a staging earlier this month at the National Gallery in London by Just Stop Oil, the climate change-focused group that seems to have initiated such protests in art museums in recent months.
Just Stop Oil had previously staged protests where they stuck to the frames of works from Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Manchester Art Gallery and the Royal Academy. They appear to have spurred activists in Italy, Australia and other countries to stage similar protests.
Letzte Generation itself has already targeted paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Raphael in museums in Berlin and Dresden. While public response from art experts in most countries has been somewhat muted, German officials have denounced the actions of the Letzte generation, along with the German Cultural Council launch a public advocacy that the protests cease because they endangered beloved works of art.
But it was the National Gallery action of Just Stop Oil that sparked the most outrage, with critics, politicians and many others accusing the group of failing to realize the potentially harmful effects of their actions.
At the National Gallery, two young activists threw tomato soup at a painting of flowers by Vincent van Gogh, then stuck to a wall. They said they were seeking to push the UK government to act faster to tackle the effects of climate change. Van Gogh’s painting was not damaged.
An outpouring soon followed as many expressed confusion, anger and horror at the protest.
Mirjam Herrmann, an activist from Letzte Generation, appeared to respond directly to the twist during Sunday’s Just Stop Oil protest. At the protest, she said: “People are starving, people are freezing, people are dying. We are in a climate catastrophe. And all you’re afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a chalkboard. Do you know what I’m afraid of?