LONDON – Room 34 of the National Gallery in London was jammed with tourists Monday afternoon studying the masterpieces of British art on its walls, including JMW Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire,” which depicts a warship being towed to a breaker’s yard, and George Stubbs’s ” Whistlejacket, ”a huge painting of a horse rearing skyward.
Then, suddenly, two visitors broke the reverential mood. At 2:15 pm, Eben Lazarus, 22, a music student, pulled three posters from a tube. Then, with the help of Hannah Hunt, 23, a psychology student, he stuck them over John Constable’s “The Hay Wain,” a famed 19th-century painting, transforming its bucolic landscape into one with airplanes, fire-ravaged trees and a rusty car.
The couple then removed their jackets to reveal T-shirts bearing the slogan “Just Stop Oil,” glued themselves to the painting’s frame and shouted about the need for action on climate change. “Art is important,” Lazarus said, his voice booming around the gallery. But it was “not more important than the lives of my siblings and every generation that we are condemning to an unlivable future.”
Nearby, a school group was midway through discussing another painting. Clare MacDonnell, the teacher, seemed unperturbed. “Oh my, I think it’s a climate protest,” she said. “How exciting!”
Over the past four years, disruptive climate protesters have become an everyday phenomenon in Britain, following the emergence of Extinction Rebellion, an activist group that sees mass nonviolent protest as the most effective way to secure change. Some of its members are happy to be arrested, using their trials to speak about climate issues.
In 2019, hundreds of its supporters repeatedly occupied roads and bridges around Britain’s Parliament, effectively shutting down that part of the capital.
Last year, Insulate Britain, a related group, began occupying freeways, while Just Stop Oil have this year blocked fuel depots and over the weekend ran onto the track at the British Grand Prix, a major motor sport event.
The past week’s events suggest that the protesters now see art as a useful prop, although it is far from the first time museums here have faced political protests. In 1914, the suffragist Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery with a hatchet concealed in her muff, then slashed a Velázquez nude in protest against the imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst. In more recent years, the British Museum, Science Museum and the Tate group of art museums have contended with theatrical protests denouncing their acceptance of sponsorship from oil companies. (BP ended its sponsorship of the Tate museums in 2016.) But activists gluing themselves to artworks is a new tactic.
Sarah Pickard, a lecturer at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in France who has studied Extinction Rebellion and its offshoots, said in a telephone interview that the museums were not so much a target in themselves as a means of getting publicity. The groups’ “whole strategy” is to take action that gets news media attention, “then move onto the next thing that creates a spark,” she said.
During the past week’s events, Just Stop Oil said some of the paintings were chosen for specific reasons, such as their importance or because they highlighted issues associated with climate change.
Pickard said the protesters may say they have reasons for targeting specific paintings, but she said their choices were largely “irrelevant,” because the “whole point is to be disruptive” to create discussion of what they see as an existential crisis. Events in Britain had the potential to be copied elsewhere, Pickard added, as protesters in France had copied British actions before.
At the Louvre in Paris in May, a man smeared what appeared to be cake over the glass protecting the Mona Lisa then yelled that he was acting against “people who were destroying the planet.”
Mel Carrington, a spokeswoman for Just Stop Oil, said in a telephone interview that the targeting of museums was a way of “putting psychological pressure on the government” through publicity. The Van Gogh protest had received news coverage worldwide, she said, whereas previous actions at oil terminals had not. Carrington said the protesters did not mind if people disliked their actions; they were not trying to win friends.
None of the paintings appear to have been damaged. A spokeswoman for the National Gallery said in an emailed statement that the Constable landscape “suffered minor damage to its frame and there was also some disruption to the surface of the varnish on the painting.” It returned to display on Tuesday.
Simon Gillespie, a fine art restorer, said in a telephone interview that solvents could dissolve the glues that protesters had used on the frames. “Thank goodness they haven’t chosen to glue themselves to the oil paint film, because undoing that would be very difficult,” he added.
Applying pressure to the paintings to apply posters could also cause damage, he said, but the protesters appeared to have worked to limit any harm. “They’ve been respectful,” he said.
When Extinction Rebellion appeared in 2018, it won widespread sympathy in Britain, where environmental concerns have long been high on the public agenda. Yet the group’s disruptive tactics have since become an annoyance for many. In recent surveys by the polling organization YouGov, about 15 percent of respondents said they supported the group, with 45 percent opposed.
Nadine Dorries, Britain’s culture minister, wrote in a tweet this week that the painting protesters were “attention seekers” who “aren’t helping anything other than their own selfish egos.”
The two National Gallery protesters were arrested on Monday. The Metropolitan Police said in an email on Wednesday that they had been conditionally released pending further inquiries.
At the museum on Monday after the protest, nine visitors said in interviews they did not support the targeting of paintings. Luciana Pezzotti, 65, a retired teacher visiting from Italy, said she cared about climate change and endorsed protest, but “why bother the art with that?”
Among the visiting crowds, though, at least one young person expressed support for it. Emma Baconnet, an art student from Lyon, France, said it was “very important” for climate protesters to be provocative to get their message heard. “Sometimes it’s a little bit too much,” she said. “But if we just speak, governments do not listen.”