Napalm, also known as Can’t Beat That Feeling, is a powerful print that reinvents the internationally known photograph from the Vietnam War entitled The Terror of War, taken on 8 June 1972 by photographer Nick Ut. The following year, the photograph won both the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and the World Press Photo of the Year. 600 unsigned and 150 signed Napalm prints were released in 2004 in three different colours: grey, orange and white. Unlike most of Banksy’s work, Napalm never publicly appeared on the street.
Napalm is one of Banksy’s most poignant works. The heartbreaking original photograph shook audiences worldwide, showing Vietnamese children fleeing from a napalm blast that had just hit their home in Trang Bang village. The focal point of the photograph is a nine-year-old girl named Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running naked in fear down a road alongside other children and soldiers of the Vietnam Army 25th Division. Despite suffering severe burns to her back, she survived the attack and now lives in Canada. She has since been the focus of a book entitled The Girl in the Picture by author Denise Chong, published in 1996.
In Banksy’s reimagining of the famous image, Phan Thi Kim Phuc is similarly positioned in the centre of the composition, but is flanked on either side by the popular characters Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, two of the world’s most litigious corporations. This establishes a disarming juxtaposition in one of Banksy’s cutting and provocative social criticisms. The horror of the scene is twisted and intensified by the pair of beaming characters, seemingly unconcerned by her distress, forcing the viewer questions their benevolence. Are they saving her life or guiding her to her fate? Prevalent symbols of American commercialism, Banksy uses the characters as an attack on American consumer culture and to reflect upon the dangers of capitalism, its impact on the population, especially children, denouncing its lack of humanism. Napalm is laced with socio-political issues of power, violence and national identity, both for America and for the world.
Renowned for his provocative political commentary and sharp critique of militarism, Napalm can also be seen to highlight the damaging effects of expansion and occupation. These themes are embodied in the figures of both Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse, referential of the international growth and global impact of both the eponymous restaurant chain and of Walt Disney's multinational industry, assimilated into a collective cultural consciousness around the world.
Napalm is considered by many to be one of Banksy's most shocking and most poignant images. It recalls the artist’s ongoing criticism of war and violence, as seen in other works such as Flying Copper, in which soldiers are given yellow smiley faces, or Happy Choppers, showing military helicopters adorned with a pink bow. In 2006, Damien Hirst famously acquired the Napalm painting to add to his personal collection. Hirst rapidly spent £1.8m at the Serpentine Gallery from November 2006 to January 2007 on works by prolific artists including Banksy, as well as Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, and Andy Warhol. Hirst has often expressed his respect for Banksy, arguing that “he's a surrealist who makes you think about the world in a completely different way." (The Guardian, November 2006)