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Sunflowers from Petrol Station, 2005

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Sunflowers from Petrol Station

Year: 2005
Medium: Oil on canvas in artist’s frame
Dimensions: 102.6 x 87.5 cm (40 5/8 x 34 3/8 inches)
Signed ‘Banksy’ (center left)
Signed and dated ‘BANKSY OCTOBER 2005’ on the stretcher

Exhibition History

Crude Oils, London, 2005
Banksy: The Unauthorized Retrospective, S/2 London, curated by Steve Lazarides, 2014

Literature

Banksy, Wall and Piece, London, 2005, p.132 (illustrated)

Auction History

Auction House: Christie’s New-York
Date: 9 November 2021
Estimated: USD 12,000,000 – 18,000,000
Price Realized: USD 14,558,000

Source: Christie’s
Held for its entire life in the collection of legendary British fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, Sunflowers from Petrol Station is an icon within Banksy’s oeuvre. Witty, irreverent and subversive, it offers a wry reimagining of Vincent Van Gogh’s celebrated Sunflowers, transforming the Dutch master’s radiant yellow blooms into a cluster of dried, wilted stems. Against a backdrop of thickly-wrought impasto, dead petals accumulate around the base of the vase, which bears the artist’s name—in place of Van Gogh’s—in blue lettering. A rare and exquisitely rendered example of Banksy’s coveted hand-painted oils, the work formed part of the artist’s seminal 2005 exhibition Crude Oils: A Gallery of Re-mixed Masterpieces, Vandalism and Vermin in London. There, it took its place alongside other art-historical reworkings by Banksy, including Show me the Monet—a parody of Claude Monet’s Japanese Bridge paintings—as well as alternative versions of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler. Acquired by Smith directly from the exhibition, it is an outstanding demonstration of Banksy’s virtuosity as a painter, and his acerbic flair as a satirist. Through the comedic pathos of withered petrol station flowers—a modern-day memento mori—the artist implicates the pollution of both art and nature at the hands of consumerism: neither, he warns, will last forever in its clutches.
Office of Sir Paul Smith, London

‘If you want to survive as a graffiti writer when you go indoors your only option is to carry on painting over things that don’t belong to you there either.’

 

The work’s provenance is exceptional. Sir Paul Smith, founder of the eponymous fashion brand, has long channeled his passion for design into close engagement with art, giving rise to a collection that charts some of the most important developments of the past century. In 1970, he opened his first clothing shop in a tiny basement in Nottingham: that year, he and his future wife Pauline Denyer—a Royal College of Art graduate—spent their last £200 on a print by David Hockney from his exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. It was the start of a journey that would lead them to delve into the work of artists ranging from William Coldstream, Euan Uglow and Alberto Giacometti to Andy Warhol, David Bailey and Grayson Perry. Others, including Frank Auerbach, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, would inspire patterns and colors in Smith’s own designs. Adorning the walls of his home, as well as those of his London headquarters and shops around the world, his collection testifies to a fluid understanding of visual culture and its place within our everyday lives.
By the time Smith discovered Banksy, he was at the pinnacle of his career. With a global brand to his name, he had been appointed Royal Designer for Industry in 1991, and Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1994; he was knighted in 2000. That year, the young Banksy moved from his native Bristol to London, and began to make a name for himself through his graffiti and urban interventions. His Crude Oils exhibition, hosted just moments from Smith’s Westbourne Grove store, served to cement his reputation both as an artist and as a cultural commentator. “What initially attracted me to Banksy was his confidence and clarity to communicate something exactly as it is,” Smith explains. “I was so impressed by his observations of what was happening in the world and that remains true of the work he’s doing today. His political statements are completely on point, really profound, really brave and consistently delivered in a modern way.” Banksy’s belief in art’s social power, moreover, remains particularly pertinent to a designer who has described how his first lessons came from conversations with local art students in pubs as a teenager, and who has since gone on to fund scholarships for today’s future artists.
Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Photo: Art Resource, New York.
Saturated with humor and dark irony, Sunflowers from Petrol Station draws together some of Banksy’s most important concerns. Underpinning his practice is a conviction that art should be for the people: by closeting it away in museums, he believes, we smother its potential to change the world. The vandalizing impulse of his work—whether spray painting a street wall, or defacing a masterpiece—ultimately serves as a mirror: we are quick to condemn such acts, he suggests, yet fail to recognize the numerous other ways in which we stifle our own society and culture. By taking one of the most iconic creations in the Western canon—the five prime examples of which reside in major museums in London, Philadelphia, Munich, Amsterdam and Tokyo—Banksy warns against the perils of institutional elitism and reverence. At the same time, the image implicates wider notions of pollution—another of Banksy’s central themes: while Van Gogh’s original canvases depicted sunflowers at various points in their life cycle, the present work envisages a dystopian world in which the only available subjects were old, dead specimens. The wry, familiar comedy of the flowers’ petrol station provenance is underlined by a more disarming thought: that one day, the sole remnants of the natural world might be offered up for sale by oil and gas companies.

‘The vandalized paintings reflect life as it is now. We don’t live in a world like Constable’s Hay Wain anymore … 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.’

Crude Oils marked the first time that Banksy had truly asserted himself as a painter. Up until then, his infamy was rooted in stenciled graffiti creations that appeared across the world: from the beloved Girl with Balloon, who migrated from London’s Shoreditch to the Southbank in 2004, to the poignant “Flower Thrower”, who hurled tokens of peace towards the West Bank Barrier wall and was joined by a series of other murals at the site shortly before the present work. In line with these interventions, Banksy also initiated a sustained attack on museums worldwide, beginning with a prank at London’s Tate Britain in 2003 in which he secretly hung one of his works among the permanent collection display.

 

 

The following year, a version of the Mona Lisa—her face replaced with an acid yellow smiley—appeared at the Louvre in Paris. Back in London, fake artefacts sprung up at both the Natural History Museum and the British Museum, while a series of four stunts in New York included the appearance of a tongue-in-cheek Warhol parody at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005. The work, which replaced Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can with a “Tesco Value” alternative—referencing the budget range of the eponymous British supermarket chain—hung undetected for six days.

 

 

These activities laid the groundwork for Crude Oils, poking fun at society’s blind faith in institutionally-sanctioned art. Ironically, the exhibition itself was Banksy’s first in a more traditional setting, following on from his 2003 show Turf War held in an East London warehouse. In the storefront of 100 Westbourne Grove—a disused shop in Notting Hill—the artist created a miniature gallery that lasted for 12 days. The present work took its place among a select number of fully hand-painted “remixes,” all of which confronted similar themes of cultural and environmental destruction. Monet’s serene lily pond became a dumping ground, filled with traffic cones and trolleys; Hopper’s quiet late-night bar had been smashed by a topless delinquent, while Vettriano’s romantic beach scene was interrupted by a sinking oil liner and two men wheeling a barrel of toxic waste. Opposite, Banksy hung a number of pre-existing canvases which he had salvaged from flea markets and doctored, inserting police tape into idyllic country landscapes and iPod headphones into the Virgin Mary’s ears. Elsewhere, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe became Kate Moss, taking her place on the exhibition’s flyer; a number of defamed sculptures were also included. In a final act of subversion, 200 live rats—an established motif within Banksy’s practice—swarmed throughout the space, as if having reclaimed it in the wake of the world’s end.

‘Art is not like other culture because its success is not made by its audience … The Art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say.’

 

 

In many ways, Banksy’s act of appropriation in the present work was a move with art historical precedent. As early as 1919, Marcel Duchamp had defamed the Mona Lisa, adorning her with a moustache and goatee and inscribing a profane anachronym below her image. Later, Warhol would similarly appropriate the work of his forebears, transforming paintings by Leonardo, Botticelli and de Chirico into garish acid-toned repetitions. More broadly, artists throughout history have restaged Van Gogh: from Francis Bacon’s versions of The Painter on the Road to Tarascon to Adrian Ghenie’s imposter self-portraits and David Hockney’s own take on Sunflowers. Banksy’s historical lineage stems deeper, too, riffing on the countless floral still-lifes and vanitas paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. In a somewhat different vein, the critic Waldemar Januszsak—in his review of Crude Oils for Sunday Times Culture—compared the exhibition to the “happenings” of the Surrealists and Situationists. Banksy’s thick, deliberate application of oil, meanwhile, seems to offer a send-up of the visceral brushwork favored by the Expressionists and Abstract Expressionists. Where these artists saw the surface as a conduit for emotion, however, Banksy’s exaggerated strokes instead tease the viewer with a rare glimpse of his hand, before dissolving into caricature.

Marcel Duchamp, L. H.O.O.Q., 1919
Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
© Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2021

Sunflowers (in its original title, in French, Tournesols) is the name two series of still life painted by Vincent van Gogh. Those paintings are widely considered some of the most important paintings of still life in art history. The first series, executed in Paris in 1887, depicts the flowers lying on the ground, while the second set, made a year later in Arles, shows a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase.
The flowers in the painting are at various stages in the plant’s life cycle, symbolic to the cycle of human life. This subject was very significant for the artist as sunflowers represent devotion and loyalty, and the color yellow was a symbol of happiness for the artist.
In Banksy’s version, obviously the beautiful sunflowers are all dead, most probably because of various human activities who are progressively destroying our planet, a recurring theme in the artist’s oeuvre.
That Sunflowers from Petrol Station should make its first market appearance at Christie’s is not without irony. It was here, in 1987, that Van Gogh’s 1888 Sunflowers made auction history in the London saleroom, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold. At $39.9 million, it tripled the previous world auction record, and far surpassed the $125 that Van Gogh had reportedly hoped to achieve for the painting during his lifetime. Photographs of the sale would go on to inspire Banksy’s print series Morons, begun the year after the present work. Yet there is a further layer of irony, too: while the majority of Van Gogh’s sunflowers remain housed in institutions, the image itself still stands as one of the best-known and best-loved artworks in the world, continuing—despite its incarceration—to spread the uplifting, universal message that the artist had originally intended for it. The same, notably, it true of Banksy: whether sprayed upon the streets, or housed within galleries, his works continue to resonate beyond their context, speaking in different languages and registers to people across the world. It is in this capacity, ultimately, that the present work’s meaning lies.
On March 30, 1987, Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto paid the equivalent of USD 39,921,750 for van Gogh’s Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers at auction at Christie’s in London, at the time a record-setting amount for a work of art. The price was over three times the previous record of about $12million paid for Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi in 1985. This famous picture from Christie’s is actually the subject of one of Banksy’s most iconic prints, entitled Morons.


Morons (Sepia), 2007
Screen-print in colors on wove paper
56×76 cm (22×30 inches)
Edition: 300 signed
sebastien laboureau

sebastien laboureau

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