Picasso mural torn from building after years of dispute

A general view of the 'Y-block' office building, adorned with a concrete mural by artists Pablo Picasso and Carl Nesjar, as workers begin taking down the mural before the building is torn down, in central Oslo, Norway July 27, 2020. REUTERS
Since the 1970s, Oslo’s modest government quarter has been dominated by a huge work of art: “The Fishermen,” a concrete mural by Pablo Picasso and Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar that overlooks the district’s central square.

The mural, on the wall of a government building known as Y-Block, has long been one of Norway’s most high-profile pieces of public art. That is, until now.

To the outrage of preservationists, art-world figures and Nesjar’s daughter, the Norwegian authorities removed the work early Thursday as part of plans to demolish Y-Block, which was damaged in a 2011 terrorist attack.

At noon Thursday, a crane placed “The Fishermen” onto two trucks which drove it away for storage. The building’s other Picasso mural, “The Seagull,” was removed from inside Tuesday. Both will eventually be incorporated into a building in a new government quarter planned for the site.

The mural’s removal was the culmination of a yearslong 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.

The fate of Picasso’s artworks has been in limbo since 2011, when right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb nearby, killing eight people and damaging the building. Breivik later killed another 69 people, mostly teenagers, on an island near Oslo. The attack remains a source of national trauma.

Despite protests against Y-Block’s planned demolition, the Norwegian authorities have insisted that a vehicle tunnel running underneath the building poses a security risk and that it is not safe for government business to take place inside.

In an email, Nikolai Astrup, Norway’s minister of local government and modernisation, said that the murals would be prominently displayed in a new, more secure building.

Astrup said that the Picasso Administration, which oversees the artist’s estate, had given its approval to the project. (The Picasso Administration did not respond to emails seeking comment.) “Considerations of safety, functionality, urban environment, conservation and costs were taken into account in an overall assessment,” Astrup said.

But such reasoning hasn’t done much to placate activists. Caroline Stovring, an Oslo architect and one of the leaders of the movement to preserve Y-Block, said in an interview that the government didn’t sufficiently explore options for retaining the building, including leasing it out so that it no longer housed government offices, or closing the tunnel underneath it.

Several attempts to reverse the decision — including a motion by an opposition party in Norway’s Parliament this June and a lawsuit filed last winter — failed. This spring, protesters, including a former Oslo city planner, chained themselves to the building in protest.

The activists have received international support for their cause. In May, curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York sent a letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg arguing that the demolition would “constitute a significant loss of Norwegian architectural heritage.” The Picasso Museum in Antibes, France, has also written to Norwegian officials protesting the decision.

Nesjar’s daughter, Gro Nesjar Greve, has launched a lawsuit together with the grandson of Erling Viksjo, Y-Block’s architect, to stop the government from repurposing the murals in the new government quarter. She said that her father, who died in 2015, was distraught when he learned of the plans to relocate the mural. “This was his main life achievement, and they are just taking it down,” she said in a telephone interview.

A group of activists have launched a legal effort to pause the rest of the demolition until the heirs’ lawsuit is heard, probably early next year. “The authorities think they can just relocate a work by Picasso and Nesjar, and that it will be the same thing,” she said. Under the government’s plans, “The Fishermen” will be installed above a VIP entrance to the new building, and “The Seagull” will be in the lobby.

She said that it was dispiriting that such a decision had been made in Norway, a country with a limited amount of high-profile public art. “We don’t have that many things to take care of, that makes it even sadder and stranger they are doing it.”


© 2020 New York Times News Service