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Norway Tears Down Picasso Mural After Years of Debate Between Authorities, Activists

Critics say the removal constitutes a crime against Norwegian cultural heritage

Government officials have moved The Seagull and The FIshermen into storage. (Photo by Orn E. Borgen / NTB Scanpix / AFP via Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

Editor's Note, July 31, 2020: On Thursday, Norwegian authorities removed Pablo Picasso and Carl Nesjar’s The Fishermen from the façade of Y-Block, a municipal building in the heart of Oslo's government quarter.

As Thomas Rogers writes for the
New York Times, “The mural’s removal was the culmination of a years-long fight between the authorities, who argue the demolition is necessary for security reasons, and activists, who believe the decision represents a crime against Norwegian cultural heritage.”

Now placed in storage, the artwork—as well as another Picasso mural titled The Seagull will eventually be reinstalled in a new building in the square.

Read more about the controversial decision below.

In 1969, Pablo Picasso collaborated with Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar to design five murals for a pair of buildings—H-Block and Y-Block—in the heart of Oslo’s government quarter. A large mural sandblasted into concrete, Picasso’s most prominent contribution, The Fishermen, decorates Y-Block’s façade with a depiction of three figures reeling in a net full of larger-than-life fish.

Norwegian architect Erling Viksjø designed the striking Brutalist buildings between 1958 and 1970. H-Block, Y-Block and their murals were slated to become protected heritage sites for many years. But on July 22, 2011, a right-wing terrorist detonated a car bomb nearby, killing eight people and severely damaging both structures. The buildings have stood empty since the bombings, reports Stefanie Waldek for Architectural Digest.

In 2014, the Norwegian government decided to demolish Y-Block in response to ongoing security threats, reported Thomas Rogers for the New York Times in 2017. The original plan called for the removal and relocation of two Y-Block murals: The Fishermen, on its exterior, and The Seagull, in the building’s lobby. H-Block and its three smaller interior murals were slated to be preserved.

Y-Block
Y-Block's facade features The Fisherman, a mural designed by Pablo Picasso and executed by Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar in 1969. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Arguments about Y-Block’s fate soon erupted, stalling the plan’s progress for several years. But in February, officials announced that the demolition would continue, and this week, the government began enacting the initial stages of the process, reports Gareth Harris for the Art Newspaper.

Now, officials from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City have waded into the debate, according to Thea Rosef of Norwegian newspaper VG. On Wednesday, VG reported that it had obtained a letter addressed from MoMA representatives Martino Stierli, chief curator of architecture and design, and Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture, to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and other top officials.

“We are writing to express our grave concern regarding the approved demolition of the Y-block governmental building,” wrote the curators in an excerpt published by VG and translated by the Art Newspaper. “ … [T]he demolition of the building complex would not only constitute a significant loss of Norwegian architectural heritage, but it would also render any attempt to salvage or reposition Picasso’s site-specific murals elsewhere unfortunate.”

Critics of the Norwegian government’s plan note that Picasso’s murals were conceived as site-specific artworks. Removing the murals from the building therefore robs them of essential context—or so the argument goes.

Gunhild Varvin, head of communications at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter museum in Bærum, tells Architectural Digest that “[t]he murals are created in situ and should be understood as a Gesamtkunstwerk where the buildings, their art, and the outdoor area around them are an integrated whole.”

Adds Varvin, “The terrorist did not succeed in destroying the buildings, and the fact that both H-Block and Y-Block are still standing structurally sound should be an important reason to preserve them.”

The Fisherman
A 2011 terrorist attack severely damaged H-Block and Y-Block, the government buildings that house the Picasso murals. (Odd Andersen / AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking with Architectural Digest, Mari Hvattum, a professor of architectural history at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, echoes Varvin, stating, “The fact that the Norwegian state will finish what the terrorist started is a cruel irony.”

Activists opposed to the demolition have organized demonstrations, Facebook groups, and a petition that on Thursday had more than 48,000 signatures. Some have even decorated a fence surrounding the Y-Block site with protest art: In one instance, reports Jenny-Linn Lohne in a separate VG article, Norwegian street artist AFK painted an image of a sad Picasso on the fence. Police quickly removed the image, according to Annicken Dedekam Råge of Norwegian magazine PLNTY.

Despite MoMA officials’ letter and locals’ protests, the Norwegian government appears to be moving forward with its plan.

“[Y-Block] was fenced in ten days ago, and The Fishermen was covered up,” Gro Nesjar Greve, daughter of Carl Nesjar, tells the Art Newspaper. “Workers at the site started drilling, but it’s worrying as once they start moving the mural, it will crack. Nobody has explained how they will do it. The art is the wall.”

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