Rats to the arts establishment

The first gallery exhibition of the British graffiti artist Banksy opens in London today - but, as might be expected, it is a strange affair, with doctored old masters and unusual guests. By Louise Jury

But just in case anyone thought he had lost his sense of humour or his rebel yell, visitors to his first-ever show in a proper gallery will have to endure 164 other unusual visitors - rats.

The rats, which are stage animals provided by a company that supplies films and theatres, mean that the temporary gallery at 100 Westbourne Grove, west London, is much more smelly than any you will find in Cork Street or Mayfair. "Rats are the triumph of the little people, the undesirables and the unloved," the artist said in a statement yesterday. "They are the ultimate role model. Despite the best efforts of the authorities, they have survived, flourished and brought entire civilisations to their knees."

The paintings, as might have been expected, also have the subversive quality for which Banksy is famed. His previous work includes a hoax rock painting depicting a spear-wielding caveman pushing a supermarket trolley which he planted in the British Museum earlier this year and graffiti on the Israeli separation wall depicting children breaking through.

For his venture into oils, under the title Crude Oils: A Gallery of Re-mixed Masterpieces, Vandalism and Vermin, Banksy takes nearly two-dozen classic works of art and, as the title suggests, re-works them.

Thus all of Van Gogh's famous sunflowers are portrayed dead, the landscape in one of Monet's water lily scenes is littered with shopping trolleys and traffic cones, and Edward Hopper's atmospheric Nighthawks is augmented by an angry man in Union Jack boxer shorts who has just broken the bar window with a chair.

Even the Scottish self-taught artist Jack Vettriano does not escape the Banksy treatment. His famous Singing Butler scene, which has been circulated in thousands of postcards and posters, has a couple of men in hazard suits on the butler's beach, while the artist replaces Marilyn Monroe, as depicted by Andy Warhol, with the model Kate Moss.

A spokeswoman for the artist said this new work began two years ago when Banksy was forced - for an unspecified reason - to spend a bit of time indoors and began vandalising oil paintings. From there he progressed to bringing his graffiti writer's touch to bear on paintings found in London fleamarkets and when the supply ran dry he started painting oils himself.

Despite his background of working mainly on the streets in an art form not yet widely accepted as legitimate, Banksy has no objection to making money from his work. Half of the 22 works had been sold even before the public opening, fetching between £10,000 and £22,000.

The artist is notoriously elusive about the facts of his identity. He has been named as Robert Banks, about 30, with a few arrest warrants to his name. He may - or may not - have grown up in Bristol.

He was willing to offer one piece of information for consideration yesterday. "Fact; wherever you stand in London, you're never more than 10 feet way from someone who knows a boring fact about rats."

Although he publicised last night's traditional private view on his website, he warned potential freeloaders: "The gallery has a very limited capacity and there are only 40 bottles of cheap red wine to go round.

"If you want to seriously look at the paintings, you're advised to come the following day."

His exhibition opens to the public today for 12 days.

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