Van Gogh’s exhibition in Rome reviewed in light of recent activists’ attacks on his paintings, including The Sower with Setting Sun at Palazzo Bonaparte 

Vincent Van Gogh would have been an activist, just not this way. Had they paid attention to the paintings in the exhibition, they would have realized he was helping nature much more than they are. 


By Micol Silvera|| Edited by Amber Alexander

Photo by gdtography  

I was about 9 years old when I first learned to associate the name “Vincent Van Gogh” to spirals-shaped stars, bowed sunflowers, and a room with a wooden chair, —and he became my hero.  

The exhibition hosted by Palazzo Bonaparte (Piazza Venezia 5, Rome) until March 26, 2023, presents many of the Dutch painter’s outstanding works from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands, the second largest collection of Van Gogh’s works. 

Viewing the introductory video in the first room of the temporary exhibition, I realized that Vincent Van Gogh was also a hero for a German art collector Helen Kröller-Müller, one of the first European women to curate and host a major art collection. The video explained how deeply fascinated she was by Van Gogh’s paintings thanks to his ability to capture and mirror her inner struggles. This accounts for the vast collection of Van Gogh’s masterpieces which she and her husband Anton Kröller-Müller purchased over the years; paintings reflecting the variety of styles and subjects adopted by the Dutch painter, shedding light not only on his growth as an artist, but on his own personal story. 

I think that Vincent Van Gogh would define the selection of paintings of the exhibition as “simple” because that is his grandeur; he enlightens the beauty of simplicity. His paintings give meaning to ordinary glimpses of life, enabling the viewer to see beauty in an old straw hat, or in a bunch of onions. Most of us are fascinated by the yellow and blue of the Starry Night (1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and by his majestic Sunflowers (1888, National Gallery, London), but this exhibition enabled me to see the realism of Van Gogh. While I was looking at all those paintings, the ones which mostly caught my attention were those portraying unrecorded pieces of everyday life and ordinary people; those paintings took me somewhere else where the surrounding sounds, faces, objects, did not exist; suddenly I was not in a museum anymore, but in a dark room, in front of a weaver at work, watching him while his eyes were focused on his hands at work, noticing the intentionality of his fingers’ movements. And then, I was sweating with the farmers, working the soil as the sun’s heat annoyingly penetrated my skin. And then, I was in the garden of the asylum of Saint Remy, watching Vincent depict the beautiful colors of nature, telling him, “It’s breathtaking, how you can still see bright colors, depict nature’s beauty even in a moment of such struggle. How not even pain can tear up the roots of your passion, your art.” 

 Van Gogh’s paintings frame real people, and their countenance seems to transmit the very essence of their soul, telling the true story of their lives; and those were the paintings which took my breath away as I was living through them. 

Another feature of the exhibition which charmed me was the installation of the painter’s quotes on the walls, and the one which stuck with me the most is:  

You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. […] Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the truly passionate painter who dares…

I guess the reason why this quote struck me so much is because, as a writer, the panic that a blank page can put me in is like a threatening look which defies me to take my pen and find something to write, and this made me see myself in Van Gogh’s words. Nonetheless, now that I am reading this quote again days later, I cannot help but wonder if Van Gogh was ever afraid for his canvas not to be blank, but to be stained by a bowl of soup. 

This past month, groups of activists around Europe have protested for climate change by throwing food at famous paintings, such as Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (Maurithshuis, Hague, Netherlands), Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (National Gallery, London) and on Friday, Nov. 4, it was time for a piece of the exhibition of the Khröller-Müller’s collection hosted by Palazzo Bonaparte to endure one of these attacks as well. A group of activists threw a bowl of soup at Van Gogh’s painting The Sower with Setting Sun, which was luckily protected by a glass barrier. 

The activists explained their gesture as a call for action to tackle climate change, a neglected growing threat for our planet. They claimed they were not against Van Gogh, as the painting they stained was protected by a glass barrier which would be cleaned the day after. But I wonder:; does cleaning the glass tomorrow erase the image of soup streaming down the painting today? Would they have done that if Van Gogh was watching? Did they take into account what it means for an artist to see the fruit of their passion and hard work covered by disgusting pieces of food? It’s like an audience throwing tomatoes at actors for a bad performance; their faces will be cleaned after the show, but can water and soap wash away that humiliation too? 

Climate change is imminent, and now more than ever there needs to be an awakening. Although I believe it’s brave to fight for one’s ideals and to make one’s voice count, I do not think that is the right way to deliver a powerful message; the activists have claimed that they are doing this to prove that governments care more for art than for our planet, but is it that way—either art or the planet? To be heard requires noise, not destruction. I believe this to be a problem of perspective; activists might be taking into consideration the large amount of money spent for the maintenance of paintings compared to the little investments in the fight for climate change, but are they considering that they are fighting for our planet not to be destroyed by becoming destructors themselves? 

And here is a staggering truth they were not seeing while throwing that soup: Vincent Van Gogh would have been an activist, just not this way. 

Had they paid attention to the illustrations of the exhibition, they would have realized Van Gogh was helping nature much more than they are, because someone who gives representation to farmers at work, the shapes of trees, the tired faces of weavers, would have fought for climate change. So, these people not only keep destroying pieces of art, but most of all, they are destroying one of them. A true activist, who wanted representation for those nobody represented, who was fascinated by people eating potatoes which they had planted themselves. When they threw that soup, I think they did not realize that underneath that painting there was a person as well, and most of all, who that person was. Another quote by Van Gogh displayed in the exhibition said: 

A person who doesn’t feel small — who doesn’t realize that he’s a speck— what a fundamental mistake he makes. 

Thus, Van Gogh thought that we should acknowledge how small we are compared to the greatness of nature; it’s together that we build something bigger, an amount which really matters. Climate change is not a stranger to any of us, and we should be fighting the problem, not each other; these types of protests are tearing people apart, they are a double-edge sword which will not make people realize the imminency of climate change, but fuel the rage of climate change denials, offering them material to keep sharing their conspiracy theories stating climate change is just a fantasy, undermining the positive impact of the activists and scientists who are trying to make their voices count without throwing food at paintings. These attacks are causing destruction, not unity; fighting art will only lead to further disruptions, without actually tackling climate change.  

Van Gogh gives representation to the unnoticed, the unheard, the unseen; his art gives them a voice, and that’s what an activist does. Activism does not require humiliation, but a voice. Perhaps, these activists are not taking into account the artist’s eyes looking at his work while it is being destroyed; but perhaps, theirs is not the only limited point of view. If they are so convinced that the only way to heal the world is destroying a painting, maybe we should all realize that their mean is wrong, but that the cause is the only thing that is right; we must all acknowledge what is happening to our planet—and take action. It’s not either art or earth; destruction is not the key, uniting our voices is. Van Gogh gave voices to the unseen through his paintings, and we all have to find our own way to give sound to our voice, not just through a bowl of soup.