Two Picasso Murals and the Shifting Perception of Public Art
Juliet Jacques examines the political motives behind the removal of works in Oslo, London and the former Yugoslavia
frieze / Art Journal / 06.08.2020 /
The pending demolition of Oslo’s Y Building, adorned since its construction in 1969 with two concrete murals by Pablo Picasso and Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjar, raises significant questions about the contexts of public art. Picasso and Nesjar’s works will not be destroyed: The Fishermen, made for the Y Building’s brutalist facade, will be shown elsewhere in the Regjeringskvartalet government complex; The Seagull, originally located in the lobby, will be stored. Eventually, both works will be installed in the Y Building’s new glass replacement.
Ostensibly, the Y Building, nicknamed after its shape and built for the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, is being replaced due to damage it sustained on 22 July 2011, when far-right terrorist Anders Breivik detonated a bomb nearby, killing eight people, before murdering 69 people at a Workers’ Youth League summer camp on Utøya island. Since then, the building has been vacant, despite only suffering light cosmetic damage. The government claims the structure is unsafe as it stands directly above a traffic tunnel – but the resonance of demolishing the building after the attack has been widely noted. Breivik opposed not just the trans-European spirit behind Picasso’s collaboration with Nesjar (they also made works in Barcelona, a hub of resistance to the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco) but ‘wanted to get rid of the legacy of social democracy in built form, and in living form’ as architectural historian Mari Hvattum observed in a 2017 article in the New York Times. Hvattum added that to tear down the Y Building was to ‘complete [Breivik’s] mission’ but, despite 60,000 people signing a petition against it, and the chief curators of architecture and design, painting and sculpture from New York’s Museum of Modern Art writing directly to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, the planned redevelopment has begun.
That the Y Building is being destroyed and its murals rehoused due to Breivik’s atrocities feels especially misjudged given that its architect, Erling Viksjø, was a concentration camp survivor and that Picasso’s most monumental painting, Guernica (1937), was conceived as a direct response to a fascist massacre. Conservatives continue to advocate for the destruction of Brutalist works because the style evolved in response to social-democratic administrations building mass housing for their populations as part of a global move to the left after World War II. Since the late 1970s, when the neoliberal ideas of the Chicago School began to dominate Western politics and corporations took over an ever-increasing number of government functions, glass has replaced concrete as the dominant material of public and private buildings: to take Picasso and Nesjar’s murals out of public view and put them inside this type of office is an assault not just on their intentions but on their beliefs.
Similar objections were raised when Eduardo Paolozzi’s mosaics – commissioned in 1984 for Tottenham Court Road tube station by London Regional Transport – were dismantled as part of a GB£400m Crossrail redevelopment in 2014. After a campaign to save them, the majority of the mosaics were restored and preserved, with the remainder saved by Paolozzi’s alma mater, Edinburgh University, which already held 150 of his works. But again, the context was fundamentally changed. In the early 1980s, London remained a centre-left stronghold. Its powerful administrative body, the Greater London Council, adhered to one of the key premises of cultural democracy – the idea that working people could appreciate all forms of art if given access to them – which was anathema to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who believed that work should be valued in purely economic terms, funded more by wealthy benefactors than the state. As those ideas reasserted themselves in the 2010s, with Crossrail destroying the old counter-cultural hub around Charing Cross Road, it is unsurprising that Paolozzi’s site-specific mosaics were not initially considered welcome within the new station’s sterile glass surrounds, and eventually moved from their prestigious position in the station’s busy Oxford Street entrance to the underground platforms. At least, however, they were not destroyed to make space for more advertising as originally seemed likely, as has been the fate of public art in metro stations in parts of eastern Europe.
In ex-communist states, this process has not always been piecemeal or business-led. The rapid ‘decommunization’ that followed the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 or the redevelopment of North Macedonian capital Skopje that same year – with revanchist neo-classical architecture built over Japanese architect Kenzo Tange’s masterplan for the city, devised after a devastating earthquake in 1963 – have perhaps been the most aggressive instances of state-sanctioned destruction. Several of Skopje’s modernist buildings were decorated with frescos by Borko Lazeski, including Epic for Freedom (1981) at the Telecommunications building. Lost in a 2013 fire, the mural was partially re-created by artist Nada Prlja, who had loved it as a youth; in a recent interview on my podcast, ‘Suite (212)’, she described this as ‘an act of solidarity’ with Lazeski and the city. She exhibited the work at the 2019 Venice Biennale as part of her Macedonian pavilion, which sought to ensure that the positive aspects of Yugoslavia’s socialist ideology and culture were not forgotten.
While this reconstruction is not on display in the same way as Lazeski’s original, and it might not be practical for any artist to reconstruct Picasso and Nesjar’s 250-tonne The Fishermen, Prlja’s gesture suggests ways in which similar works can have their political intentions enhanced by a change of context. It simply requires artists, architects and public bodies to approach them in a spirit sympathetic, rather than antagonistic, to that of their creators.
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.