Germany’s Barberini Museum in Potsdam is the latest institution hit by the burgeoning food-on-masterpieces trend of climate activism that is sweeping Europe. This Sunday, October 23, just over a week after Just Stop Oil’s souping of van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at London’s National Gallery of Art, a pair of German activists gave Monet’s “Grainstacks” (1890) — valued at $110 million — a mashed potato facial. The protesters, from the German group Letzte Generation, then glued their hands to the wall beneath the painting.
As with the action at the National Gallery, the painting was protected by a layer of glass and unharmed, but the Barberini Museum confirmed that its 19th-century gold frame was affected.
“The painting was not damaged in the action,” reads a statement from Letzte Generation. “Quite in contrast to the immeasurable suffering that floods, storms, and droughts are already bringing upon us today as harbingers of the impending catastrophe.”
One of the protestors, 25-year-old Mirjam Herrmann, used her wall time to drive the point home.
“People are starving, people are freezing, people are dying,” she said as a few visitors looked on. “We are in the climate catastrophe. And all you’re afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting. Do you know what I’m afraid of?” (Certainly not legal reprisal, a possibility since the two protesters were apprehended and taken into police custody. After all, you can’t ruin your future when there is no future.)
In a press statement, the Barberini Museum described “Grainstacks” as one of Monet’s “most important and valuable paintings.” “Endangering pictures in museums and wantonly accepting their destruction is not a contribution to climate protection,” Director Ortrud Westheider said. “If the activists had been interested in the paintings, they would have known that it was precisely Impressionist artists such as Monet who dealt intensively with changes in nature in their compositions.”
While London’s tomato-soup protest caused predictable pearl-clutching over the potential destruction of valuable artwork and a healthy side of debate over tactics, the question remains: What value will these artworks have if there is no meaningful way forward for humanity? Whether you think these actions are brave or reckless (or both), they are ultimately trying to send a wake-up call over the deep existential threat to life as we know it. It feels a little funny when framed as a food fight, but the main course is catastrophe.
An inspection of the Monet work is underway and the museum intends to put it back on public display on Wednesday, but French institutions better check museum-goers for pockets full of delicious cheese, just in case any activists are planning to go back for thirds. The rest of us better check our consciences and decide what actions we can take to secure a meaningful future for the art — and the people — that we claim to love so very much.