“The vandalised paintings reflect life as it is now. We don’t live in a world like Constable’s Haywain anymore and, if you do, there is probably a travellers’ camp on the other side of the hill. The real damage done to our environment is not done by graffiti writers and drunken teenagers, but by big business… exactly the people who put gold-framed pictures of landscapes on their walls and try to tell the rest of us how to behave.”
Show me the Monet is one of the most iconic paintings of Banksy’s provocative oeuvre. It is an extremely rare entirely hand-painted canvas that helped cement Banksy’s position as a controversial and decisive social commentator for our time. It was acquired by the present owners directly from Banksy’s landmark 2005 exhibition Crude Oils: A Gallery of Re-mixed Masterpieces, Vandalism and Vermin. Banksy repurposes an iconic image in the western canon: Claude Monet’s career-defining view of the Japanese footbridge in his water garden at Giverny. With its tongue-in-cheek pun of a title, Banksy’s painstakingly observed re-painting delivers a complex dialogue that tackles prescient issues of our time, such as the environment and the capitalist landscape of our contemporary moment, not to mention the art establishment and its current identity crisis. With a sumptuously rendered orange traffic cone and a thickly textured shopping trolley disrupting the romance of Monet’s iconic Impressionist masterpiece, Banksy’s version is more twenty-first century fly-tipping spot than timeless idyll. Delivered with the ironic dead-pan immediacy of a punchline, the underlying conceptual complexity at stake here belies its humour.
Show me the Monet was most recently exhibited at the Museum Jorn, Denmark in From Jorn to Banksy – The Art of Détournement. Shown alongside some of the most critically acclaimed artists of the last century such as Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and Joan Miró, it was contextualised within a greater art historical lineage; an institutional framework that underscores the authenticity and power of Banksy’s best work. The Museum Jorn’s director Jacob Thage wrote:
“The work is such a complex and strong comment on the institution of art, but also a comment on consumerism vs. culture. Today I perceive it as one of the most important works of art in this century so far.”
Claude Monet's Japanese Bridge Paintings, 1899
Claude Monet's iconic images of the Japanese bridge spanning the lily pond of his lush garden at Giverny are some of the most recognisable images in art history. Executed between 1897 and 1899 on canvases measuring approximately 90 by 90 cm, Monet painted twelve variations on this same composition depicting the same view at different times of the day, during different weather conditions and seasons of the year. Of these twelve, eight are prized in the collections of the Museé D’Orsay, Paris; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art, Moscow; The National Gallery, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton; Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Representing the apogee of Monet’s oeuvre, these are the holy grail of Impressionist paintings.
Monet’s beautiful paintings of Giverny are today considered a benchmark of established taste and art historical achievement. Yet as an artist building his reputation during the 1860s and into the 1870s Monet was considered a radical. By recording everything he saw and conspicuously refusing to omit ‘ugly’ scenic disturbances in his painting, his works sought to reflect the changing landscape of Modern France as the industrial revolution made its impact on the traditional landscape genre. This was controversial and seen as an affront to contemporary taste, and this revolutionary value has been amplified through Banksy’s reworking over a century later.
Measuring 143 by 143 cm in its gilded frame, Banksy has here scaled up Monet’s Japanese bridge paintings, while its composition and colouring appear to be an amalgamation of Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1899; Philadelphia Museum of Art), Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge (1899; Princeton University Art Museum) and The Water-Lily Pond (1899; The National Gallery, London). Echoing the way in which Monet translated the French landscape, complete with evidence of the encroaching industrial revolution, Show me the Monet presents a dialogue on the impact of the corporate world on our environment and the sacrifices made at the expense of so-called ‘human progress’.
In 2005 Banksy made headlines with his first conventional gallery exhibition, the now legendary Crude Oils: A Gallery of Re-mixed Masterpieces, Vandalism and Vermin. Hung in a disused shop on Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill, this was Banksy’s debut exhibition in a more traditional setting. Show me the Monet was displayed at the street-facing end of the shop-turned-gallery. On prominent view to those passing on the street, this painting set the tone for the exhibition, an event that some 15 years later is now revered as a milestone in the artist’s career. Show me the Monet joined three other fully painted ‘remixes’ of canonical works of art. Installed along the same wall and across the back of the gallery space, Banksy’s reimagined Monet accompanied a wilted, bloomless version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; a take on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in which a topless Union Jack boxer-wearing yob has smashed the late-night bar’s glass window; and Jack Vettriano’s popular Singing Butler featuring a sinking oil liner and two men in hazmat suits wheeling a barrel of toxic waste. Facing these works on the wall opposite were a number of modified oil paintings. Unlike the fully painted Show Me The Monet, these works are traditional oils on canvas bought at flea markets around London that feature various Banksy-modifications: added motifs that evoke the fallout of present-day social decline. Chocolate-box landscapes are interrupted by burnt-out cars or police incident signs, a Renaissance Virgin and Christ child listen to an iPod, while traditional portrait subjects are transformed into gas mask wearing sitters. In addition to these hand-painted works on canvas, the show also featured a number of ‘vandalised' classical sculptures: a Venus with a traffic-cone over her head sports full body tattoos while a portrait bust wears a khaki balaclava. Animating the whole event, however, and further underscoring the anti-establishment tone of Banksy’s first ‘conventional’ show, was a live interactive element: the inclusion of 164 live rats set loose within the gallery space.
In his Sunday Times Culture review of the 2005 exhibition, Waldemar Januszsak compared Banksy’s Crude Oils to a Surrealist or situationist happening, describing the production as an elaborate and engaging mise en scene: “So, the scene has been set, the evocation evoked. We’re in a dilapidated museum overrun by rats that have eaten the attendant and set a melodramatic post-Holocaust mood that continues into the paintings” (Waldemar Januszsak, ‘Who’s afraid of the big bad guy?’, The Sunday Times, 23 October 2005, p. 9). Couched in black humour, it is precisely this mood that pits Banksy beyond the cynical punster he is often perceived to be. Show me the Monet and the wider series of Crude Oils brilliantly attest to this. Indeed, from the mid-2000s onwards, Banksy began tackling an overt geopolitical agenda with increasing intent. Despite the cynical puns and sharp punchlines, there is an authenticity to Banksy’s project. This is what makes his work so powerful, appealing, and ultimately what will see him stand the test of time. Though retaining anonymity in order to continue making street art that is deemed illegal, he is widely discussed in the media and appreciated well beyond the usual confines of the art world. Vigilante painter of our times, Banksy has adopted a heroic position for his own generation and those to come.
As an artwork, Monet’s waterlilies exist at the very apogee of artistic achievement across the last 100 years. In choosing perhaps the most iconic of these paintings, Banksy takes on the height of human civilisation in a single image. Universally known and appreciated, its ironic manipulation to include half-submerged shopping trolleys and a traffic cone presents an affront both to an icon of art history while also building on Monet’s radical legacy as a painter of Modernity. Following this thread, however, Banksy explicitly passes comment on our age’s hyper-capitalism and waste. Using a heavy dose of irony and humour, Banksy’s work harbours a greater social agenda. In his glowing review of the Crude Oils show, Januszsak has outlined:
“Many of them are landscapes in a vaguely Constable-ish manner, doctored to capture the spirit of modern Britain as Banksy sees it… Thus, Banksy the supposed hooligan turns out to be an old-fashioned moralist, moaning about the ruination of Britain’s ancient textures as blimpishly as John Ruskin used to do when he complained about the railways. In their exceedingly unsubtle way, the Banksy rants are rather effective. The borrowings from other artists give them instant familiarity”
Show me the Monet challenges the abject wastefulness of a throw-away society dominated by corporate business. Instead of the peaceful tranquility and Monet’s ground-breaking genius, we are instead reminded of fly-tipping, urban decay, and the vandalised vestiges of the UK’s own industrial revolution. Alongside the present work, Banksy’s wilted Van Gogh harbours a similar message on the decline of our natural world at the expense of the global wealth-machine. By emulating famous art historical images and palatable archetypes of traditional painting, presenting them in gilt frames under traditional picture lights, Banksy feeds us barbed visual satire in the language of the Bourgeois manner of the Nineteenth Century.
Via an unapologetic appropriation of its established icons and historical movements, Banksy engages a direct dialogue with art history. The quotation and subversion of Monet’s masterpiece takes its original cue from Marcel Duchamp, specifically his infamous 1919 work L.H.O.O.Q. In this work Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee on a cheap postcard reproduction of the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The salacious pun of the work's titular acronym (when pronounced these letters sounds similar to the vulgar French expression ‘there is fire down below’) and Duchamp’s masculinisation of classical female beauty poked fun at establishment ideals, particularly the Bourgeois cult of Jocondisme that was rife during the early Twentieth Century. Building on this controversial Dadaist legacy, and nodding at Roy Lichtenstein’s and Andy Warhol’s later Pop-art remixing of famous paintings, Banksy subverts the reputable.
Beyond Duchamp, as illuminated by the Museum Jorn exhibition in 2019, the Crude Oils take precedent from Asger Jorn’s tactic of detournement, for which a pre-existing image was subverted through the insertion of a new dissonant element. The most apposite example for Banksy’s work is Jorn’s series of ‘modification’ paintings; overpainted pictures originally bought in junk shops, many of which now reside in prestigious museum collections worldwide. With the Crude Oils, however, Banksy takes this process of artistic ‘hijacking’, applies it to high art and catapults it to the next level; in doing so, his works not only take on the history of appropriation in art, but also calls into question cultural, moral, and ethical values. As tremendously deployed in Show me the Monet, Banksy is a master of surprising juxtapositions; using humour and art historical acumen these works undercut the elite to elevate the proletarian and shed light on the great issues of our times.