Outrage as Picasso murals stripped from Oslo building

A pair of Picasso murals have been ripped from the walls of a building in Oslo, stoking the flames of a legal dispute over their fate.

‘The Fishermen’ and ‘The Seagull’ were drawn by Pablo Picasso and sandblasted onto the walls of the Y Block administrative building in Oslo’s Regjeringskvartalet area in the 1970s. The installation was part of 17-year collaboration between Picasso and Norwegian artist, Carl Nesjar, and are considered integral to the brutalist building, which was designed by Erling Viksjø in 1969.

Following damage sustained from a terrorist car bombing in 2011, the Norwegian government proposed to demolish the building and incorporate the Picasso-Nesjar murals into a building in a new government quarter planned for the site. The government argues the demolition is necessary for security reasons because a vehicle tunnel runs underneath the building making it unsafe for government business to be conducted inside.

Gro Nesjar, Carl Nesjar’s daughter, and Viksjø’s grandson have filed suit against the Norwegian government against the planned relocation of the murals. Gro claims the damage to the building caused by the terrorist attack was minor, arguing “the fact is only a couple of windows were broken!”. Gro also claims that under Norwegian law she has “moral rights” to the murals as they are considered a co-authored art work by Picasso, Nesjar and Viksjø.

My father was not just a fabricator for Picasso but part of the artistic process,” Gro maintains, “my father actually adapted the drawings of ‘The Fishermen’ and several of the murals as part of the process to fit them to the wall. My father was perhaps the only person Picasso ever let modify his drawings”. Gro has also defended Viksjø’s grandchildren’s rights to the works because of the “industrial and artistic techniques that made these murals possible”, which Viksjø developed with his engineer, Sverre Jystad.

According to the Architect’s Newspaper, the Statsbygg, the agency responsible for the Norwegian government’s real estate assets, was given permission in March 2020 to prepare to demolish the Y Block. Deconstruction began on 27 July and ‘The Seagull’ was removed from the building on 28 July. ‘The Fishermen’ was taken down on 29 July. The works will be stored until the new buildings are completed in 2025.

Activists protesting the government’s plans believe they are a crime against Norwegian cultural heritage. Given the site-specific nature of the works, they argue that removing the murals fundamentally alters their character. One of the leaders of the protest movement, Oslo architect Caroline Stovring, contends that the Norwegian government did not try hard enough to find alternative means of preserving the site. Options could have included closing the tunnel underneath the building or using it for non-government purposes. The protest movement has launched a legal bid to halt the demolition of the remainder of the Y Block until Gro’s lawsuit is heard.

Protesters received support from international arts professionals outraged by the plans to remove the works and raze the Y Block. Director of the Musée Picasso in Antibes, Jean-Louis Andral expressed “grave concern” over the government’s plans in a letter to Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg. MoMA curators, Martino Stierli and Ann Temlin, asked the Norwegian politicians to reconsider the demolition plans.

Norwegian minister, Nikolai Astrup, wrote in a letter to the Musée Picasso that the demolition provided “an opportunity to establish a more open government building complex and improve the outdoor spaces considerably”. Astrup also insisted the Norwegian government adopted expert recommendations, including those of governmental organisation Public Art Norway (Koro), on how to integrate the murals into the new building complex.

Both works of art will be positioned in such a way that they can be seen by the public… ‘The Seagull’ will actually be more accessible in the new government building complex than is currently the case”, Astrup added.

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