Street artist Banksy is known for his simple graffiti stencils, often with a sharp political point, but a new London exhibition is offering an opportunity to discover his wider talents. The mysterious British artist from Bristol, south west England, made his name with clandestine street murals, and a movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which he directed in 2010. But he has produced a treasure trove of other images.
“You’ve got quite a few different styles here, you’ve got everything from the stencils to the paintings to the crude oils,” says Steve Lazarides, co-founder of the Lazinc gallery where the show opened last Thursday and is on until August 25.
It includes classics such as Girl with Balloon, a black-and-white image of a little girl letting go of a red heart-shaped balloon, and Flower Thrower, depicting a masked protester ready to throw a bunch of posies.
But there are also lesser- known works such as the oil painting Sunflowers from Petrol Station depicting Van Gogh's Sunflowers withered in a vase.
None of the framed pictures in Banksy, Greatest Hits: 2002-2008 were made on the street – all were created to be sold, and are on loan from private collectors. The show examines a prolific period when Banksy organised some of his most significant shows such as Crude Oil, Barely Legal, and Turf War.
Lazarides met Banksy, whose identity remains unconfirmed, in 1997. He noticed his “visceral energy”, and became his photographer and gallerist.
"At this time he was free, he didn't have the kind of expectations he has now. He was just painting for fun," he recalls. Over the years, the value of Banksy's art exploded and he began producing paintings and limited-edition prints, which allowed him "to do more and more elaborate street operations". In 2008, a collaboration with Damien Hirst, Keep It Spotless, was sold at a New York Sotheby's auction for US $1.8 million (Dh6.6m). Of an oil painting parodying Monet's Water Lilies – 2005's Show Me the Monet – Lazarides says: "That painting would have been £15,000 (Dh72,903) when we sold it. "The client now wants to sell it for [almost] £5m." The artworks can be bought by visitors to the gallery, but Lazarides warns that there is very little on display that costs less than £500,000. He believes Banksy has become one of the most popular contemporary artists because "he doesn't make people feel scared".
"He popularised art among the general public and suddenly it was OK to say that you like art and you didn't need an art history degree to understand it," he says. He reveals that Banksy has become "more and more political" over the years – for example via recent works in Paris he took aim at the French government's hard line on migrants. His anonymity has given him something of a mythical status, which Lazarides feeds, saying: "It could be a team, it could be twins or a woman. Who knows?"