Banksy has just lent a picture to the Southampton General Hospital. It will remain of view in a foyer near their emergency department on the third floor until the autumn but will then go to auction to raise funds for the National Health Service. Very generous of him.
It will be really valued by everyone in the hospital – Southampton General Hospital CEO
The loan has been gratefully received by the hospital. The hospital CEO is reported as saying: “It will be really valued by everyone in the hospital, as people get a moment in their busy lives to pause, reflect and appreciate this piece of art. It will no doubt also be a massive boost to morale for everyone who works and is cared for at our hospital.” The loan has been reported in glowing terms by The mainstream press.
Reading what the papers have to say, one wonders if those offering these reports actually take stock of what they were looking at. As the illustration given here shows, all in black-and-white except for a small red cross on the breast of the nurse figure, the composition offers a large boy-child holding up a doll, the nurse figure in question. She is wearing a face-mask, familiar from images of the NHS personnel who are dealing with the epidemic. Cast aside in a trash-basket nearby are two other dolls on the same scale, one of Spiderman, one of Batman. As The Times report noted: “The nurse’s arm is outstretched and pointing forward in the fashion of Superman on a mission.” On a mission, yes. But in this case powerless to fulfil it.
One of the things Banksy is famous for, in addition to his determined anonymity, is his sense of irony. Whom does the jolly child playing with dolls represent – casting two toy supermen aside, holding up a new heroine, helpless in his grip? Could he possibly be a representative of our current government, perhaps even a caricature, in juvenile guise, of our very own Bouncing Boris?
Visual images differ in one important respect from words. Far more often than statements made in verbal form, they tend to be inherently ambiguous. Banksy has consistently shown himself to be conscious of this. If you want, you can read this image as a well-deserved tribute to our NHS. Looked at again, it seems to me more like a brutal criticism of our current government. Our death toll from the pandemic is now the highest in Europe.