Conservation Norway

Picasso murals under threat

Government contemplates tearing down buildings damaged during terrorist attack in Oslo

Picasso’s The Fisherman survived the terrorist attack unscathed, but other government buildings bearing the artist’s murals were severely damaged (see below)

The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage fears that Picasso’s first monumental concrete murals, which were made between the late 1950s and the early 1970s for two government buildings in Oslo, may be destroyed. The buildings were severely damaged during the deadly terrorist attack in the Norwegian capital in July 2011. The government is now considering whether to demolish the Modernist buildings that form the regjeringskvartal or government quarter.

“If the buildings were demolished and the murals integrated into new ones or brought to another site, they would no longer be the works Picasso intended,” says Jørn Holme, the head of the Directorate for Cultural Heritage.

After the attack on 22 July, Rigmor Aasrud, the minister for government administration, reform and church affairs, publicly asked whether it would be better to demolish the buildings. Holme and others think Aasrud’s question suggests that she wants to tear down the buildings, although a spokesman for the ministry declined to comment when approached by The Art Newspaper last month. A few months before the attack, the government and the directorate agreed that the buildings (known as Y- and H-block) should be listed, but moves to protect them were not followed up after the bombing.

The ministry has asked several architects to propose suggestions for the regjeringskvartal, providing options to both retain and demolish the buildings. The architects will present their proposals this summer. A report by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage concluded that, despite the bombing, the buildings are not unsafe and can still be used. “We still think that listing is appropriate. The buildings [are not only important] because of the works of art [that were] made especially for them, they are also a cornerstone in Norwegian architectural history and stand for the country’s development as a welfare state after the Second World War,” Holme says. The structu­res were built in the 1950s and 1960s with breccia—a building technique using natural concrete—which was popular in Norway after the war.

Picasso made sketches for five murals to be executed on the buildings’ interiors and exteriors. The largest, The Fisherman, 1970, is installed on the façade of Y-block. The Norwegian artists Inger Sitter, Kai Fjell and Carl Nesjar, among others, also made works for the buildings.

According to Holme, these decorative elements are also worth preserving. It was Nesjar who was responsible for applying Picasso’s sketches to the building. “It was the first time Picasso worked with breccia. Without [the project in] Oslo, he would probably not have realised similar works in Barcelona and Stockholm,” says Leif Anker from Holme’s directorate. It is also important to Nesjar that the buildings be kept. “The works of art in concrete were made and designed for very particular spaces [such as] the stairwell walls and lobby,” the artist says. “[The art, the architecture and the materials used] make the whole complex a unique and original work of art. It is important to keep the whole assembly of buildings as a unit.”

Statsbygg, a company that advises the Norwegian government on construction and property, agreed before the attack that the buildings should be listed. Representatives declined, however, to comment on the future of the buildings.


Picasso’s The Fisherman survived the terrorist attack unscathed, but other government buildings bearing the artist’s murals were severely damaged
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