Climate activists in Austria deface Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life painting

Climate activists in Austria deface Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life painting

Climate activists in Austria have attacked a famous painting by artist Gustav Klimt with a black, oily liquid.

Members of the group Letzte Generation Österreich — Last Generation Austria — tweeted on Tuesday that they had targeted the 1915 painting Death and Life at Vienna’s Leopold Museum to protest the government’s use of fossil fuels.

After throwing the liquid on the painting, one activist was pushed away by a museum guard while another glued his hand to the glass covering the artwork. The piece was not damaged in the incident. The group defended the protest, saying in a tweet that they were protesting “oil and gas drilling”, which they called “a death sentence to society”.

In a video of the incident, which Letzte Generation Österreich posted online, one of the demonstrators can be heard shouting: “We have known about the problem for 50 years — we must finally act, otherwise the planet will be broken.”

“Stop the fossil fuel destruction,” he added. “We are racing into a climate hell.”

One activist was moved away by a guard while a second glued themselves to the artwork (LETZTE GENERATION ÖSTERREICH/AFP)
One activist was moved away by a guard while a second glued themselves to the artwork (LETZTE GENERATION ÖSTERREICH/AFP)

After the attack, police arrived at the museum and the black liquid was quickly cleaned off the glass protecting the painting, Austria Press Agency (APA) reported.

Despite thorough controls at the museum’s entrance, the activists succeeded in bringing the liquid inside by hiding it in a hot water bottle under their clothes, the agency said.

The museum’s restoration team later said that while the painting itself hadn’t been harmed, the damage to the glass and security framing — as well as to the wall and floor — was “evident and significant”.

Director of the museum Hans-Peter Wipplinger told APA that the concerns of the climate activists were justified, “but attacking works of art is definitely the wrong way to implement the targeted goal of preventing the predicted climate collapse”.

He appealed to the group to find other ways to make their climate change concerns known. Austria’s culture minister also expressed understanding for “the concerns and also the desperation” of the activists, but criticised their form of climate protest.

“I do not believe that actions like these are purposeful, because the question arises whether they do not rather lead to more lack of understanding than to more awareness of the climate catastrophe,” Andrea Mayer said.

Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life has not been damaged thanks to protective glass covering the artwork (REUTERS)
Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life has not been damaged thanks to protective glass covering the artwork (REUTERS)

“From my point of view, accepting the risk of irrevocable damage to works of art is the wrong way to go,” she added. “Art and culture are allies in the fight against climate catastrophe, not adversaries.”

The Klimt work is an oil on canvas painting in the Art Nouveau style, depicting death on the left and a group of partially nude figures embracing on the right.

It is one of the latest pieces of art to be targeted by climate protesters to draw attention to global warming. Different activist groups have staged numerous demonstrations in recent months, including blocking streets and throwing mashed potatoes at a Claude Monet painting in Germany.

The British group Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery last month.

Just Stop Oil activists also glued themselves to the frame of an early copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at the Royal Academy of Arts, and to John Constable’s The Hay Wain in the National Gallery.