When I last visited Bristol in August of this year I took the opportunity to wander again around the Museum and Art Gallery, always a delight whenever back in the city I spent so much of my life in. As a way to distract from the never-ending crisis that is Brexit it is always a bonus to get a longer and more positive perspective on history and culture.
An unexpected highlight of my unhurried stroll within this temple of the Muses proved to be a temporary display of a large canvas. Entitled Devolved Parliament, it was created in 2009 by the Bristol artist known as Banksy. To the casual visitor the painting of the Commons chamber of the Houses of Parliament filled with chimpanzees may strike them as confusing or whimsical, but as with all this artist’s work there is more to this piece than meets the innocent eye.
This of course makes it an ideal subject for discussion in my series of occasional posts about the stories behind the images and other objets d’art housed in this Bristol building.
First, the title. Originally known as Question Time, the image depicted a primate minister apparently delivering an answer at PMQs or Prime Minister’s Questions; this is a mid-week event in the Commons when the government of the day is required to respond to queries from MPs of all political shades.
Although in 2009 the PM, Gordon Brown, was from the leftwing Labour Party, Banksy was possibly anticipating a coming rightwing government as the standing chimp is to the right of the Speaker’s chair, indicating their political allegiance.
In recent years it has been retitled Devolved Parliament. One’s first reaction is that it must refer to the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom, namely the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Senedd. But on reflection that cannot be so as the chamber is obviously in Westminster.
The second, more plausible, explanation is that we are to imagine that Members of Parliament have reversed evolution, regressing down the primate hierarchy. Certainly their behaviour, especially their shouting, hooting and baying at the opposite benches, may recall the aggressive posturing that occurs when two tribes of chimpanzees confront each other.
Although the journalists in the press gallery above the Speaker’s chair are also depicted as chimps, as if tarred with the same brush, I can nevertheless easily imagine this scene as a still from the latest sequel in the Planet of the Apes franchise — perhaps entitled Parliament of the Apes.
Half the fun comes from observing the actions and postures of the honorable members. Some are listening intently, others vociferously expressing disagreement. On the left one appears to be licking a plate while on the other side another is checking whether any alcoholic beverage remains in their bottle. One even appears to be picking their nose. (This was painted however long before one Tory MP, Iain Duncan Smith, was shown live on BBC Parliament committing the very same gross act.)
In early October 2019 the canvas — the largest ever painted by the artist and originally completed for his one-man show at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery ten years before — was put up for auction at Sotheby’s by its private owner. Expected to sell at around the two million pound mark it eventually went, in less than a quarter of an hour, for £9,879,500, a record for a Banksy.
Quoting art critic Robert Hughes the artist expressed his dismay that instead of making us feel more clearly and intelligently, art’s new job was to sit on a wall and get more expensive.
Thank goodness none of this was on my mind when I saw the original in the summer; but whether locked in a vault or on public view its ability to make us consider whether power truly resides in the people or in an unaccountable moneyed elite is as pertinent as ever.