When Greta Thunberg delivered her “Our house is on fire” speech at Davos in 2019, she galvanised hundreds of thousands of school students to strike for the climate. The address was unique and potent in its urgency, but what did it look like in colour? What hues, textures and shapes could be ascribed to her words?
One artist has sought to answer that very question, by transcribing Thunberg’s voice into a painting that will debut at Sotheby’s next month.
Jack Coulter – who has synaesthesia, a neurological condition which blends the senses – has based his work, Future Generations, on a line in Thunberg’s speech which calls for the safeguarding of “living conditions for future generations”.
The artist, whose fans include Paul McCartney and Anne Hathaway, has forged a career out of putting music on to canvas – he’s painted Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto live alongside the London Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, and was commissioned by the Freddie Mercury estate to depict the track Mr Bad Guy. But this “was very different to anything before”, he said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of doubt and ignorance from the world’s ‘leaders’ surrounding the climate emergency,” he said. “As a young person, it feels as if you’re screaming into the void. I’m in my 20s and terrified for my future; I can’t imagine the fears of future generations. I don’t want to look back thinking I could have done more.”
The Northern Irish artist said he was “fed up” when he began liaising with Thunberg about the painting. Alongside her words, he transcribed music from British band the 1975’s adaptation of the speech, which sets a similar essay by Thunberg to an ambient arrangement. “The additional musical element was an important aspect for the painting’s final visual. It was inspiring, hopeful, destructive, melancholic and assertive all at once,” Coulter said.
The work will be part of Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated auction between 7-13 September and is estimated to fetch up to £20,000, with proceeds going to the Greta Thunberg Foundation. It will also be displayed at Sotheby’s galleries in New Bond Street.
“Greta is the voice of our generation,” Coulter said. “[She] is independent, and I’m an independent artist. It was a very organic and truthful process. We’re currently up against the most important issue that humanity has ever faced; there’s a deep-rooted sense of dread. It feels as if our actions aren’t making a difference or helping. Yet, that’s not true at all. Together, the small things can become the big things. In the auction world, this painting is a chance to help.”
The artist walks a path trodden by many a famous name before him – the likes of David Hockney, Vincent van Gogh and Joan Mitchell have all been linked to synaesthesia, and intuitively translated sensory experiences into grand visual works.
“At the core of my process, I’m reacting to sound in real time,” said Coulter, whose early work was based on the timbres of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. “I try to depict exactly what I’m experiencing, whether that’s a certain shade, tone or form. The colours that resonate from specific sounds are so potent.” Capturing a track’s overall feeling was just as important as bringing its colours alive, he said. “I’ve built an almost visual vocabulary to merge painting and music.”
Speaking about the artwork, Thunberg said: “Our current society is on a collision course with our life-supporting systems. The world we thought we knew no longer exists. Present and future living conditions for life on Earth as we know it are being sacrificed so that a small number of people can continue to make unimaginable amounts of money. Humanity is now approaching a precipice, but it is not too late to turn around. For that to happen, we need to be ready to change everything.” Coulter’s painting, she said, aims to “raise awareness of the climate crisis”.
Lisa Stevenson, the head of curated sales at Sotheby’s, said: “The noise Jack Coulter conveys through paint is nothing short of unique, and it is very exciting to see this piece at Sotheby’s less than a year since his auction debut, which saw collectors the world over compete for his work.”