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Activists Arrested for Throwing Soup on Van Gogh Painting, but It's Not Damaged

Vincent Van Gogh's iconic 1888 painting Sunflowers was unharmed, according to London's National Gallery.

Just Stop protesters speak after throwing soup on Van Gogh's Sunflowers in London
A Just Stop protester speaks after throwing soup on Van Gogh's Sunflowers in London.
Just Stop Oil/Screenshot by CNET

A pair of activists from the campaign group Just Stop Oil were arrested Friday after they threw tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh's iconic 1888 painting Sunflowers in London's National Gallery. The painting is unharmed, the gallery said, but the frame suffered minor damage. It's been cleaned up and is back on display.

The environmentalist activists each glued one of their hands to the wall under the painting immediately afterwards.

"What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?" one of the activists said afterward. "The cost-of-living crisis is part of the cost of the oil crisis, fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can't even afford to heat a tin of soup."

Visitors were cleared from the room and Metropolitan police officers unglued the two, before bringing them into custody. They were arrested for "criminal damage and aggravated trespass."

The act was a response to the UK government's "inaction on both the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis," Just Stop Oil said in a release. Activists have glued themselves to other works of art hanging in British galleries, including John Constable's The Hay Wain, the New York Times reported. Similar incidents have happened in Germany, Italy and Australia.

The moves were timed to highlight new licenses for oil and gas projects, expected to be awarded by the government of new UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, and Britain's recent energy price hikes, the activist group noted. Throwing soup was a symbolic choice, Just Stop Oil spokesperson Mel Carrington told the Times, saying that the soaring cost of energy in the UK has left some people unable to afford to heat up a can of soup.

Human-made greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels for energy. The top three emitters worldwide are China, the US and the EU. Per capita, the US and Russia have the highest emissions. 

The activists' actions also follow stark warnings about the impact of climate change, as extreme weather events like Hurricane Ian become increasingly common. The damage disproportionately hits vulnerable populations, including island communities, which are seeing higher temperatures and increasing frequency of tropical cyclones, storm surges and sea-level rise.