via NYTimes 'City Room' blog:
Cooper Union removed a banner showing a 1953 Picasso portrait of Stalin from the facade of its historic Foundation Building on East Seventh Street. (Photo: Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times)
After complaints to the city Buildings Department, and concern from
the Urkainian community in the East Village, Cooper Union removed a giant banner with a reproduction of a Picasso drawing of Joseph Stalin. That decision has outraged Lene Berg,
the 43-year-old Norwegian artist who included the banner as part of her
one-woman art installation, “Stalin by Picasso, or Portrait of Woman
with Mustache,” in the school’s historic Foundation Building, on East
“I didn’t get any explanation of what happened,” Ms. Berg, who is based in Berlin, said in a phone interview this week. She said Cooper Union officials removed the banner last Friday, five days after it went up, without consulting either her or Sara Reisman, associate dean of Cooper Union’s School of Art and the curator of the exhibition.
“They took it down before I even had a chance to know what was going on,” she said. “In a sense, I think it’s self-censorship on their part.” She said she asked Cooper Union to close the entire show, because the banner was an integral part of it. “They ruined my show, my work,” she said.
In a statement issued to Cooper Union staff members and students, the university said it removed the banner after the Buildings Department, which had received complaints about it, pointed out the school did not have a permit for it. The school also said the removal of the banner occurred as a “gesture of respect for our neighbors,” since this year marked the 75th anniversary of a famine imposed by Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians.
The famine began in 1932-1933 as the result of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. Millions of independent farmers, known as kulaks, perished. (The deaths were largely overlooked by Walter Duranty, a correspondent for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for a series of articles about the Soviet Union, articles that were later discredited as too credulous of Soviet propaganda. The Pulitzer board declined in 2003 to revoke the award, and The Times does not have the award in its possession.)
Although Ms. Berg is no Stalinist — her art installation is intended to be a critique of contemporary politics and the power of representation — the image of the Soviet leader upset many in the historic Ukrainian community that has thrived in the East Village since the 1940s. Although many Ukrainian-Americans have moved away, the neighborhood remains a cultural hub.
“I was surprised when the banner went up, and I am pleased that it came down,” said Jaroslaw Leshko, the president of the board of trustees at the Ukrainian Museum on East Sixth Street.
Mr. Leshko, a professor emeritus at Smith College, said: “I am an art historian and a profound believer in creative freedom of expression. That will never change.”
But putting a giant Stalin banner on the face of the school’s headquarters was insensitive, he said.
“Perhaps the banner can still be viewed in another context, inside the building, without an aggressive public face,” he said. “That would satisfy everybody, certainly me. I want the image to exist as a work of art and to have an appropriate presentation.”
Mr. Berg, who is based in Berlin, said the brouhaha over the banner was ironic, because the original Picasso image was not, in fact, seen as sympathetic to Stalin. Commissioned by Louis Aragon, a Stalinist sympathizer, for publication in a French Communist weekly newspaper, Les Lettres Françaises, the image was viewed as unflattering of the Soviet leader, and prompted widespread condemnation of the artist by French Communists, she said.
Below is a statement released by the Cooper Union, as supplied by Claire McCarthy, the school’s director of public affairs:
On Friday, Oct. 31, the city’s Department of Buildings — after receiving complaints about Lene Berg’s banner installation entitled “Stalin by Picasso, or Portrait of Woman with Mustache” — informed the Cooper Union that the three banners installed on the façade of the Cooper Union Foundation Building were in violation of city permit regulations and had to be removed. The Cooper Union is in the process of resubmitting permit applications to determine if the banners can be reinstalled.
In addition to this development, the Cooper Union was made aware that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor, the decimation of the Ukrainian population through imposed famine, which took place in 1932-33 under Joseph Stalin’s rule. If we are granted permits to reinstall the banners, installation will not commence until after the New York Ukrainian community’s commemoration events on Nov. 15, as a gesture of respect for our neighbors.
In the meantime, at the wish of the artist Lene Berg, the gallery component of the show — two videos and two book projects — installed in the Houghton Gallery will be closed until further notice.