London, anti-oil activists glue themselves to a Van Gogh painting at Courtauld Gallery

Singular protest by the environmental group Just Stop Oil, which opposes fossil fuels: two activists entered London's Courtauld Gallery and glued themselves to a Van Gogh painting. Other similar actions took place in Glasgow and Manchester.

Two environmentalists from the British group Just Stop Oil led a unique protest action last June 30 at London’s Courtauld Gallery, which reopened last November after three years of work. The two activists glued themselves to a Vincent van Gogh painting, Peaches in Bloom (1889), with the intention of raising awareness about the damage caused to the environment by oil and gas. The painting, the activists explained, was chosen for its symbolic value, since it depicts a landscape in Provence, a region threatened by drought, where following a low rainfall winter and spring (rainfall levels were 45 percent below historical averages), an abnormal heat wave was unleashed between May and June. This had an impact on water supplies, and as of June 15, 124 water use restriction ordinances were in effect in France in 39 of the 96 departments of mainland France.

“I loved this painting as a child, my father took me to see it when we visited London,” said one of the two activists, Louis McKechnie, 21. “I still love this painting, but I love my friends and family more, I love nature more. I consider the future survival of my generation more important than my public reputation. Scientists are saying we need to end fossil fuel licensing, and the government is pouring sand in their ears. I am not willing to walk to my death because of the fossil fuel companies and their government puppets. It is immoral for cultural institutions to stand by while our society is collapsing. Museums should close down. Directors of art institutions should demand that the government immediately stop all new oil and gas projects. Either we resist or we are complicit.”

“I’m taking action today,” Emily Brocklebank, 24, a psychology student, echoed him, “because I can’t live in a bubble of normalcy when society is collapsing around us and people in the global south are suffering so much. Billionaires are getting richer while nurses are lining up at food banks, tens of millions of people around the world are starving, and half the world’s population is in extreme danger of heat waves, floods, fires, and famine. Meanwhile, the art establishment, politicians and fossil fuel companies look the other way. I love art, wherever I go I visit all the museums. Art is very important, it captures history and a moment in time, but artists and the art establishment are failing us by focusing on the wrong things. We need everyone to focus on the government’s genocidal plans to allow fossil fuel companies to drill even more. This is one of the greatest injustices in history. We must resist it.”

The wing of the museum where the Van Gogh painting is located was closed to the public for the rest of the day, but reopened immediately the next day. Instead, the two activists were picked up by London police, who in a video released by Just Stop Oil on Twitter were filmed climbing a staircase inside the Courtauld Gallery to break up the protesters’ action.

The protest followed by a few hours a similar action, also led by Just Stop Oil activists, carried out on June 29 at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland: there, the activists, in addition to gluing themselves to a painting (a 19th-century Scottish landscape, My heart’s in the Highlands by Horatio McCulloch), also left, on one of the pillars of the room, an inscription with the group’s name made with spray cans using a stencil. The demonstrators in this case numbered five, all under the age of 31, and were taken into custody by Police Scotland. Again, the museum had to close its doors. Similar scene at the Manchester Art Gallery on July 1, in this case a painting by William Turner was targeted, and environmentalists left spray-painted signs on the floor (“No New Oil”).

Officials from the two museums are currently working to find out whether the works were damaged during the actions. The group Just Stop Oil, for its part, is promising new actions: activists are campaigning against oil terminals in the Midlands and southern England (they have tried several times to disrupt their operations), have invaded soccer games several times, and are now apparently targeting museums with the aim of raising attention around the issue of oil drilling. Finally, on July 27, they are planning a large protest demonstration in London.

London, anti-oil activists glue themselves to a Van Gogh painting at Courtauld Gallery
London, anti-oil activists glue themselves to a Van Gogh painting at Courtauld Gallery

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