Sunday, 26 July 2009

Banksy at the Bristol Museum

The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has a substantial collection of the watercolors and drawings made by Adela Breton, a British woman who spent months at archeological sites in Mexico between 1894 and 1910, when the Mexican Revolution made it too dangerous for her to return to Mexico. Breton was from Bath and her drawings and records of sites earned her respect as an archeologist at the beginning of the 20th century. Her important copies of reliefs and wall paintings at ChichenItza and other ancient American sites were largely forgotten after her death, but in recent years scholars have begun to recognize the importance of these early records of the monuments, made before they had deteriorated or even disappeared during the course of the 20th century. I wanted to see the watercolors, and some of the artifacts she collected from grave sites in Mexico, almost all of which she bequeathed to the Bristol Museum. I spent a morning viewing the majority of the collection, which is in storage, and have come to appreciate how well curators Jennifer Stewart and Sue Giles had chosen when they co-organized the exhibition The Art of Ruins: Adela Breton & the Temples of Mexico in 1989.

On the way to the appointment, Curator Giles explained how to get into the museum past the vast crowds that were lining up for a new exhibition, and that piqued our curiosity about the exhibition. It turned out to be the first museum installation of the famous British graffiti artist Banksy, about whom I knew nothing and who seems to be relatively unknown in the United States. The museum, somehow without telling its staff, had arranged for Banksy to intervene in nearly all aspects of its exhibition space. This is particularly impressive since no one in the museum, or anywhere elses, knows who Banksy is or what he looks like. “His people” did the vast conversion of the museum displays.

For example, the museum information desk had been replaced with a rattletrap ice cream truck. On one side of the entrance hall Michelangelo’s David was wearing a suicide bomber’s belt; on the other a classical Venus stood carrying multiple shopping bags. A sculpture of the seated Buddha had a broken arm, a neck brace, and a swollen eye. The monumental lion had eaten his trainer; the whip was in his mouth and fragments of a red uniform on the ground. An angel had a can of paint dumped on her head. Suspended above was a biplane from the collection whose pilot had been replaced with a Guantanamo prisoner. In this section he catches your attention by a cartoon approach to traditional art works and museum functions.

The Bristol Museum is one of those old museums that houses history, natural history, and art, so it provided a range of materials with which a satirical artist might work. In the ceremonial court at the center of this very staid classicizing building were a series of cages, all playing on the viewer’s assumptions about animals versus how we actually usually encounter them. In one a taxidermied chicken proudly looks out of her coop as her eggs hatch chicken nuggets. In another a proud mother surveillance camera cooes over two baby cameras in a nest. A fried fish stick floats in a glass fish bowl. In smaller cages little hot dogs and sausages, some with mustard, wiggle and lean toward their food bowls. A rabbit puts on cosmetics in front of a mirror. A leopard reclining on a tree branch with his tail wagging turns out to be a leopard coat.

The museum’s second floor displays natural history specimens, including dramatic exhibits of a large prehistoric fish indigenous to the region, mineral samples and taxidermied animals native to England, as well as a gorilla that had been a favorite attraction at the Bristol Zoo until his demise. Banksy inserted stuffed animal toys among the real specimens. In a display of stalactites and stalagmites, he had added a penis. Here the intervention seemed less purposeful and more playful.

The top floor that houses the art collections began with an 18th-century European painting of a landscape being invaded by flying saucers. Not knowing the collection, I couldn’t tell if he had replaced paintings with similar ones or painted completely new compositions. But a friend has now found the original by Claude-Joseph Vernet in the National Gallery in London. A classical landscape had a billboard advertising EasyJet flights to Cairo. Others included wrecked cars. A landscape with water in the foreground had been tilted and the water was painted pouring out of it. In a painting resembling Millet’s The Gleaners, one of the figures had apparently cut herself out of the scene and was sitting on the frame having a smoke. A Renaissance Madonna had an Ipod.

In the contemporary section, the label identified one painting as a collaboration between Damien Hirst and Banksy; it depicts a rat painting over a Damien Hirst spot painting.

The result of all this was that we went carefully through every gallery in the museum, including the substantial collections of ceramics and decorative arts, looking to see what had been done to each part of the collection. And we weren’t alone. The exhibition has certainly drawn a vast audience to the museum, looking at everything, and one hopes, discovering that some of the non-Banksy works might merit some looking as well. Unfortunately, though, as an art historian on my very first visit to the museum and interested in seeing the permanent collection, I found myself searching for the Banksys rather than focusing on the museum’s collection.

Meanwhile, in the news, two Banksy graffiti in Bristol had been defaced. One of them, which we later saw in person, depicts a naked man hanging from a window sill by one hand. Looking out the window but not seeing the dangler is a fully dressed man and behind him a very concerned looking woman in her underwear. The news said that normally graffiti would have been removed by the city but this work had been so popular with the Bristol public that it had been preserved. And word was that the vandalism may have been an angry response by a Banksy fan for “selling out” and having a big museum show.


  1. Ah, you're just betraying your age! Banksy is well known amongst the hipster set in the U.S. For similar oddities, check out:


  2. Hey, Randall, none of my art historian friends have heard of him either. Of course, they're all old too.