The contrast between the 17th-century old master and 21st-century disrupter couldn’t have been more extreme.
To the left, Rembrandt’s broodingly introspective “Self-Portrait With a Red Beret.” To the right, behind a protective glass screen, Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon,” the painting that had made global headlines when it sensationally self-destructed at an auction. Its frayed canvas now dangles limply below its elaborate gold frame.
Retitled “Love Is in the Bin,” the end result of what many regard as the most spectacular of all Banksy stunts has just spent almost a year on loan at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in Germany.
The damaged exhibit freeze-frames the moment at the end of a 2018 contemporary art auction when, to loud gasps, a painting that had just sold for $1.4 million slid through a remotely controlled shredding mechanism, then jammed halfway. Sotheby’s had been “Banksy-ed.” Paradoxically, market experts regard the work as even more valuable now that it commemorates a famous Banksy stunt designed to expose the excesses of the art trade.
The exhibition of the work, on loan from its anonymous German buyer, finished last Sunday, transforming attendance figures at this normally straight-faced German museum. During those 11 months the Staatsgalerie attracted 180,000 visitors, about double the usual, according to Charlotte Mischler, the museum’s head of communications. It stayed open until 10 p.m. for the last five days to cope with demand.
This is quite a turnaround. Fifteen years ago Banksy, a young upstart street artist from Bristol, England, was smuggling his works into museums as pranks. Now, they can be the official stars of the show, accompanied by guided tours and lectures.
How has Banksy, the archetypical artist-provocateur, gotten here? None of it has happened by accident. Banksy’s rise and rise is the result of years of meticulous control of his message, his market and, most importantly, his mystique.
The enormous popularity of Banksy’s brand of urban art has given the cultural establishment, increasingly jittery about perceptions of elitism, plenty to think about. The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart has asked the question: Is Banksy a historically significant artist? If he is — and for many that is a very big “if” — what will be his legacy?
Joining the artistic pantheon would have been the last thing on Banksy’s mind in the early 2000s when he was a young, carefree tagger spray painting images of rats, chimpanzees, rocket-launching Mona Lisas and kissing policemen on the streets of Bristol and London.
Steve Lazarides was the artist’s agent, photographer, and collaborator during those formative years and went on to set up a commercial gallery in London, which represented Banksy from 2006 to 2008. In a recent interview, he said the artist was “a total control freak, down to every last detail,” adding, “That’s what makes him so good.” In December, Mr. Lazarides published “Banksy Captured,” a book chronicling those glory years when the artist produced his most celebrated street pieces.
But Mr. Lazarides fell out with Banksy in 2008 and withdrew from the commercial gallery scene last year. “The internet has made it redundant,” he said. “Why give the dealer 50 percent? Thanks to artists’ own websites and Instagram, the artist can sell directly to collectors and keep all the money.”
Banksy now has no gallery representing him, but discreet multimillion-dollar sales of original works to selected private collectors have helped fund his ongoing graffiti stunts and ambitious larger-scale projects, like “Dismaland,” a pop-up amusement park in southern England, and the Walled Off Hotel, an exhibition space, spray paint store, and nine-room lodging in Bethlehem on the West Bank.