In Oslo, protecting mural frescoes by Picasso at the heart of the debates

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Controversy rages around Picasso’s frescoes. Made in the 1950s and 1960s in Oslo on the exterior and interior facades of a government building, these mural works have been opposing two camps for several years. On the one hand the Norwegian government, which supports the demolition of the building, on the other the world of culture, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which calls for preserving the complex.

The precious frescoes indeed have a heavy history. In 2011, they were the backdrop for the car bombing that occurred in the Regjeringskvartalet district of the capital. The explosion by far-right terrorist Anders Breivik killed eight people. It also damages blocks Y and H, where the works of the Spanish painter are located. Since this tragic event, the premises have remained empty.

Block H was severely damaged by the car bomb attack. Here, a view of one side of the government building taken in 2009. STIAN LYSBERG SOLUM / SCANPIX NORWAY / AFP

In 2014, Norwegian politicians launched a plan to demolish the Y building, arguing that maintenance of the concrete complex is not economically viable. They also plan to dismantle the frescoes to reintegrate them into two new structures soon to be built in the government district. The project has been widely criticized by several heritage preservation organizations, who believe that the transfer risks weakening them.

Significant loss of Norwegian architectural heritage

Designed respectively in 1969 and 1958 by the Norwegian architect Erling Viksjø, the Y and H blocks each house several works by Pablo Picasso. All were produced in collaboration with the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar, who engraved them in concrete. Passers-by can admire the so-called fresco on the facade of the first building. Fishermen, which remained miraculously intact after the attack. The painting The Seagull it adorns the hall of block Y. Those in building H, on the other hand, suffered much more. The three works are not threatened by the demolition project and should be restored at the same time as the building.

It is worrying because when [les ouvriers] will move the mural, it will crack

Gro Nesjar Greve, daughter of Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar

Work to dismantle Fisherman started two weeks ago according to The Art Newspaper . “Site workers have started drilling, but this is worrying because when they move the mural, it will crack”, alarmed Gro Nesjar Greve, the daughter of Carl Nesjar. In a letter sent to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and to the Minister of the Environment Sveinung Rotevatn, MoMA representatives call for “Reconsider the authorization of the demolition permit”.

Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar etches one of Picasso’s paintings in concrete in 1958. STORLØKKEN, AAGE / SCANPIX NORWAY / AFP

“The demolition of the building complex would not only constitute a significant loss of the Norwegian architectural heritage, but it would also make any attempt to recover or reposition the murals of Picasso unhappy”, say the two MoMA curators in this text published by the Norwegian press.

Recently, a petition asking for the preservation of the Oslo Y block collected more than 48,000 signatures. The action group behind the petition recalls that one month before the 2011 terrorist attack, the two buildings were on the verge of being classified as historic monuments.

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