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What the Hell Happened: Climate Activists Attack Velázquez Painting

"The Rokeby Venus" is a painting by Diego Velázquez and depicts the Venus, goddess of love and beauty, with her son Cupid.
"The Rokeby Venus" is a painting by Diego Velázquez and depicts the Venus, goddess of love and beauty, with her son Cupid. By Courtesy of Wikipedia
By Audrey H. Limb, Contributing Writer

“The Toilet of Venus” bears a surprising number of battle scars for a painting. On Nov. 6, the London National Gallery’s famous painting suffered its second attack from social activists. The first attack occurred in 1914 when a suffragette slashed the canvas. This time, the painting’s protective glass was hammered by the climate activist group Just Stop Oil to protest oil and gas licensing across the United Kingdom.

“The Toilet of Venus,” also known as “The Rokeby Venus,” was painted by the renowned Spanish artist Diego Velázquez between 1647 and 1651. The oil painting is one of Velázquez’s most celebrated pieces and his only surviving female nude. In 1914, Canadian suffragette Mary Richardson slashed the work with a meat cleaver to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain at the time. Richardson targeted the painting because it depicts Venus, an idealization of beauty and the female form, and she considered Pankhurst’s arrest a destruction of “the most beautiful character in modern history.”

The most recent attack on the painting is the work of Just Stop Oil, a British climate activist group, in response to the British government’s plans to grant over 100 new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea. In a video posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) by Just Stop Oil, two members of the group hammered the glass cover of the painting five times and punctured it in several locations. Then, they turned to address the visitors in the gallery, referencing Richardson’s protest.

“Women did not get the vote by voting. It is time for deeds, and not words,” said one protester in a video of the incident posted on X. “It is time to Just Stop Oil.”

The protesters continued to demand that Britain’s government halt licensing for all new fossil fuel projects in the United Kingdom, and urged onlookers to join their cause.

“Politics is failing us,” said another protester in the video. “If we love history, if we love art, and if we love our families, we must Just Stop Oil.”

Though Just Stop Oil was founded less than two years ago, the group’s activity has attracted widespread attention from the media. The organization’s vandalism of art in its political statements is especially controversial. For example, on Oct. 14, 2022, Just Stop Oil protesters threw tomato soup at an iconic Vincent van Gogh painting, “Sunflowers,” at the National Gallery. That same month, members smeared cake over a wax statue of King Charles III at Madame Tussauds in London. Last month, Just Stop Oil disrupted a live performance of “Les Misérables” in London to protest the inaction of legislators.

In addition to demanding action from the British government, the group’s most recent attack on “The Toilet of Venus” seems it was designed to promote its own upcoming activity.

“MARCH THROUGH LONDON WITH US ON 18 NOVEMBER” flashes across the screen at the end of Just Stop Oil’s video posted on X. Whether or not this message will convince viewers to respond to the activists’ call to action, it has certainly grabbed the public’s attention. The actions of Just Stop Oil highlight the growing entanglement of art in the political polarization regarding the climate crisis. While the long-term consequences of this entanglement remain murky, one thing is clear as glass — no artwork is safe.

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