Painting the Red Plague: Tribute to the Poznań Uprising

1956 was a heady year of protest against the repressive Communist governments that controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe. The most famous uprising of that year is the Hungarian Revolution, a nationwide rebellion that was brutally suppressed by invading Soviet forces. Espionart has previously explored this landmark Cold War episode by looking at József Jakovits’s poignant biomorphic sketches, which chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching army.

A less well-known revolution of 1956 is the Poznań Uprising, a two-day wave of protests by factory workers in one of Poland’s largest cities. As events spiralled out of control on 28 June 1956, with escalating violence on both sides, the Polish military entered Poznań. By the end of the conflict, at least 57 citizens lay dead, including Roman “Romek” Strzałkowski, a 13-year-old schoolboy who would become a posthumous symbol of Polish resistance to Communism. However, unlike the increased repression that followed the Hungarian Revolution, the Poznań Uprising ultimately heralded liberal reform, with the so-called Polish October later in 1956 precipitating the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, and the eventual fall of Communism in Poland. [Find out more about art, Solidarity and the cheeky dwarves who brought down the Iron Curtain.]

Franciszek Starowieyski, ‘Robotniczy krzyk’ (‘The Workers’ Shout’) 2006. Photo: Bartosz Jankowski for Fotorzepa.

Fifty years later, the Polish and Hungarian authorities both looked to artists to commemorate the uprisings of 1956. In Hungary, a modernist sculpture by the art collective i-ypszilon, unveiled in Budapest’s City Park, proved a provocative choice. In Poznań, an allegorical mural, commissioned by the district council, would also cause controversy. The 2.9 by 8 metre painting was the work of the eccentric Polish artist, Franciszek Starowieyski. Also known by the pseudonym Jan Byk, Starowieyski trained as a painter in Kraków and Warsaw, before making his name as a prolific poster and set designer for theatre and film. In later life, Starowieyski found international fame and, in 1985, became the first Polish artist to have a solo exhibition at MoMA in New York. [You can now relive that exhibition, thanks to the museum’s excellent online archive.]

Franciszek Starowieyski creating ‘The Worker’s Shout’, 2006. Photo: Piotr Jasiczek.

Over the course of seven days in 2006, Starowieyski painted his tribute to the 1956 uprising in public at the ZAMEK Cultural Centre in Poznań. In his distinctive surrealist-grotesque style, the canvas depicts the winged figure of the Ancient Greek goddess Nike (Victory), watching over the fallen protesters, each one numbered. Behind them, a boy waving a white and red banner is said to be Romek Strzałkowski. Nike faces a menacing personification of Communism, which Starowieyski described as the “red plague”. Next to this bulging, weaponised figure, bursting out of a red star, Starowieyski also acknowledges thirteen members of the Polish forces killed during the confrontation.

Upon the completion of the mural, some participants in the 1956 rebellion objected to its flagrant nudity. However, later in 2006, Starowieyski’s painting was welcomed to its new home at the headquarters of H. Cegielski–Poznań S.A., the manufacturing company whose workers had sparked the uprising.

Franciszek Starowieyski and assistants creating ‘The Worker’s Shout’, 2006. Photo: Piotr Jasiczek.

An additional visual parallel between the Hungarian and Polish rebellions is also of interest. In 1956, Starowieyski created a rare political poster in tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Uprising, demonstrating the strength of sympathy among Poles after their experiences in Poznań. The lithograph, which depicts the head of a peace dove with a teardrop hanging from its eye, is remarkably similar to the final etching in the Revolution series, created in the same year by Hungarian artist, József Jakovits. Assuming that Jakovits’s design was inspired by Starowieyski’s famous poster, the works demonstrate little-known dialogue among dissident artists behind the Iron Curtain, and a shared artistic response to a year that shook Eastern Europe.

 

Parisian Artists in Defence of the Rosenbergs

The execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at sundown on 19 June 1953 was one of the darkest moments in recent US history. The married couple were the only American civilians to be put to death for espionage-related activity during the Cold War, after they were convicted of passing top secret information to the Soviets. Their deaths left their two young sons orphaned.

It was claimed that the atomic weapon designs shared by Julius Rosenberg enabled the Soviets to acquire nuclear capabilities earlier than expected. The USSR staged its first nuclear test, RDS-1 (rechristened Joe-1 by the Americans), in August 1949. KGB files declassified after the country’s dissolution confirmed Julius’s involvement in the plot. But the death sentence for Ethel – who was found guilty of typing up notes that Julius passed to his handlers – remains a controversial decision.

For over two years, the pair had been languishing in jail. During this time, the case became a cause célèbre. Particularly in France, there was widespread sympathy for the Rosenbergs, with recognition that the alleged espionage would have taken place when the Soviet Union was an ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. In the aftermath of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, there were also many who felt that the development of Soviet atomic weapons was a necessary evil to deter the United States from launching further nuclear attacks.

Leger to Robert

Fernand Léger, ‘Liberté, Paix, Solidarité’, 1953. Serigraph on scarf with handwritten dedication to Robert Rosenberg.

Artists too rallied in defence of the couple. Among them was the renowned French Cubist, Fernand Léger – a member of the Communist Party – who designed a bold double portrait of the couple in his distinctive colourful style. The couple’s faces are shown overlapping, Ethel in frontal view and Julius in profile, alongside a peace dove – at the time also a common symbol of Communism. Two hands are shown with fingers entwined, a bracelet on one possibly a reference to a press photograph of the couple embracing in handcuffs during their trial. The images are framed by the words ‘Liberté, Paix, Solidarité’ (‘Liberty, Peace, Solidarity’).

Léger printed his design on silk scarves which he intended to sell to raise money for the Rosenberg’s defence. The couple were executed before he could put the plan into action – but one of the scarves now takes pride of place in the home of Robert Meeropol, the couple’s youngest son who was 6 years old when his parents died (his brother Michael was 10). Léger added the handwritten dedication to this scarf: ‘à Robert, orphelin’ (‘To Robert, orphan’).

Picasso Rosenbergs

Pablo Picasso, ‘À la mémoire de Julius et Ethel Rosenberg’, 1953. Lithograph with handwritten dedication to Michael and Robby Rosenberg.

Another double portrait print was designed by fellow Communist artist, Pablo Picasso. As with Léger’s scarves, it was intended to be sold to raise defence funds and Picasso would give a dedicated copy to the two boys. In the annual Salon d’Automne, which opened at Paris’s Grand Palais in November 1953, the strength of feeling against the Rosenberg’s execution was made clear. Numerous French artists joined Picasso and Léger in exhibiting artworks in tribute to the Rosenbergs and denouncing what they felt to be a grave miscarriage of justice. A press photo shows Jean Venitien’s large oil painted canvas Honour to the Rosenbergs, an unusual style for the impressionist artist who was better known for his paintings of Southern French landscapes.

alamy rosenbergs

Opening of Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais, Paris on 11 November 1953, showing the painting ‘Honour to the Rosenbergs’ by Jean Venitien. (c) Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Salon also included André Fougeron’s monumental Socialist Realist painting Civilisation atlantique (Atlantic Civilisation), now held in London’s Tate Modern. A scathing critique of America’s influence in Europe, the caricature-style narrative shows widespread suffering caused by corruption, colonisation, consumerism and militarism. In his condemnation of French foreign policy in North Africa, Fougeron introduced visual tropes that he would build upon five years later in his canvas Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), explored in an earlier Espionart post. Central to this modern history painting is the towering image of the electric chair, used to execute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.

Atlantic Civilisation 1953 by André Fougeron 1913-1998

André Fougeron, ‘Civilisation atlantique’ (‘Atlantic Civilisation’), 1953. Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy Tate.

Over in the United States, artists such as Hugo Gellert and Arnold Mesches also expressed their support for the Rosenbergs as prisoners of conscience, who had paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

rosenberg sons

The Rosenberg orphans, Robert and Michael, would later be adopted by songwriter Abel Meeropol, whose commitment to fighting injustice was shown in his famous anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, recorded by such greats as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. The family continue to campaign to this day for justice for their parents and exoneration for Ethel, and to support the children of other activists in the United States, through the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Art of the East German Uprising

As Stalin grew ever more paranoid and unpredictable in the final months of his life, the ailing dictator demanded that Walter Ulbricht’s Communist government in the German Democratic Republic consolidate its control over the country by intensifying the process of Sovietization. In the summer of 1952, land confiscations, tax hikes, and a public pay freeze with a 10% increase in labour quotas were introduced, against the backdrop of a crumbling economy and a surge in political arrests.

Max Lingner, ‘Building of the Republic’ (‘Aufbau der Republik’), 1950–53. Photo: OTFW, Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0. Click to view full image.

Sovietization also extended into the arts. On 3 January 1953, a 60-foot mosaic mural in classic Socialist Realist style was unveiled on the exterior wall of the House of Ministries in East Berlin, the seat of the GDR government. In an ironic twist, the mural replaced a Nazi-era frieze celebrating the eastward march of Wehrmacht soldiers. Having failed in their mission, the troops were replaced with depictions of the Communist working class, complete with Young Pioneers and the German People’s Police. Constructed from hundreds of Meissen porcelain tiles, the mural remains a popular tourist attraction to this day.

The artist behind this monumental work was Max Lingner, a painter and illustrator who in 1950 was a co-founder of the East Berlin Academy of Arts. Lingner was selected for the project in November 1950, after being one of six artists invited to compete for the commission. However, having spent the previous two decades living in France – where he had been a member of the Résistance – Lingner found himself under suspicion for possible bourgeois tendencies. The artist was compelled to revise his design on several occasions, in response to criticism from the authorities that his figures looked too “French” and that he had not accurately represented a tractor!

By the time it was completed, the vision of joyous East German workers sharply contrasted with the reality of life in the increasingly isolated state. A steady stream of East Germans had emigrated since the GDR was founded three years earlier, with an annual departure of around 180,000 citizens. The widespread alarm at increased Sovietization dramatically increased those numbers, and in the first half of 1953 alone, more than 226,000 East Germans fled to the West. Many of those who remained hoped that life would improve following Stalin’s death in March; and indeed, the new leaders in the Kremlin recommended that Ulbricht should curtail his plans, to stem the exodus. But by then, the people had had enough.

Workers protest in front of Max Lingner’s mural at the House of Ministries, Berlin, 17 June 1953.

On 16 June 1953, construction workers in East Berlin launched strike action, which quickly spread across the country. Calls for lower work quotas grew into protests demanding the resignation of the government. The next day, ten of thousands marched on the House of Ministries. There, in front of Lingner’s painting of a march under the banner of “Sozialismus”, real-life East German workers held up banners proclaiming “We want free elections!” and “We want to be free, not slaves.”

socialism-leipziger-strasse-muralUlbricht turned to the Kremlin for help and on 17 June, Soviet tanks and some 20,000 soldiers marched into East Berlin, opening fire on the crowd. The death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from 55 known victims to over 600, including those executed in the aftermath. In addition, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested, followed by lengthy sentences in penal camps. Taking back control of the country, the Communist party blamed the rebellion on the West and suggested that it had been covertly orchestrated by the CIA.

Meanwhile, in West Germany, the event was seen very differently.  From 1954 until reunification, 17 June was commemorated in the Federal Republic of Germany as the “Day of German Unity”. A week after the uprising, some 125,000 West Germans attended a funeral for the eight victims who had died in West Berlin hospitals, and on the 2nd anniversary of the massacre a monument was unveiled in their cemetery in the Wedding district of Berlin. Carved by sculptor Karl Wenke, the statue shows a man encased in stone, desperately trying to break free.

In contrast, it would take until 2000 for a formal memorial to be installed in what was East Germany. Berlin artist Wolfgang Rüppel’s powerful photographic reproduction under laminated glass, sunk into the square in front of what is now the Federal Ministry of Finance, is at first hidden from view. But from the right vantage point, the seemingly random etched dots converge to once again reveal the faces of the demonstrators. Set directly in front of Lingner’s mural, the two artworks provide a jarring juxtaposition, offsetting the promise of Communism with its harsh reality.

Filonov’s Ambiguous Portrait of Stalin

Cover of ‘Les Lettres Francaises’, featuring portrait of Stalin by Pablo Picasso, 12 March 1953.

Anyone who has watched the 2017 satirical movie The Death of Stalin will have a darkly humorous although roughly factual understanding of the events of 5 March 1953, when the Soviet dictator finally met his end. After 3 decades in which ‘Stalinism’ had increasingly dominated all aspects of political and cultural life in Russia and the wider Soviet Union, it would take the country many more years to adjust to life without this fearsome ruler.

The ever-popular Espionart post Stalin by Picasso (or Portrait of a Woman with Moustache) introduces readers to the equally ridiculous story of Picasso’s comically bad tribute to the newly-deceased tyrant. However, the painting of the leader that I find the most fascinating, due to its ambiguously perceptive portrayal of his menacing and mercurial character, is an oddly unrepresentative work by the Russian avant-garde painter, Pavel Filonov.

In the early 1910s, Filonov developed a unique painting style that he called Universal Flowering (Mirovoi rastsvet). Using fine brushes, Filonov meticulously crafted dense networks of line and colour, resembling the finest filigree or spider silk, that built up kaleidoscopic images from which the viewer can gradually distinguish layers of people and objects. He referred to these works as ‘formulas’. Filonov blended artistic inspiration from across Russian history with post-revolutionary experimentation, incorporating folk art, orthodox iconography, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and magical realism. While he was a contemporary of luminaries such as Malevich, Chagall, Rodchenko, Kandinsky and Mayakovsky, Filonov’s work has remained relatively unknown outside Russia due to his socialist principles. Refusing to sell his work to private collectors, even when he was left penniless and destitute, Filonov instead remained committed to his promise to leave his life works to the proletariat, hoping that they would eventually be housed in a dedicated museum in St Petersburg.

Filonov Formula

Pavel Filonov, ‘Formula of Spring and Acting Forces’, 1928–29. Oil on canvas, 250 x 285 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

However, as Stalin consolidated his authority and gradually reduced all opportunities for deviation from his all-encompassing vision for Soviet life, Filonov was one of many Russian artists whose commitment to the revolutionary cause was cruelly betrayed. Previously renowned as a professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, Filonov was left struggling to survive after his work was condemned as bourgeois and his large retrospective exhibition was banned in 1929. After more than a decade eking out a living in this inhospitable environment, in 1941 Filonov became one of the first of an estimated 1.5 million Russians to starve to death during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad. Yet it would take over 40 more years for Filonov’s work to be made available to the general public, after his descendants were finally permitted to bring his paintings out of the storerooms of the Russian Museum in St Petersburg in the late 1980s.

Pavel Filonov, ‘Portrait of J. V. Stalin’, 1936. Oil on canvas, 99 X 67 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Sometimes lost of this dramatic biography is Filonov’s decision in 1936 to paint a large, sombre portrait of Stalin. That year, the period now known as the Great Terror or Great Purge was just getting started. Over the following years, political rivals, intellectuals and anyone else who Stalin saw as a potential threat to his total rule was condemned in a series of show trials or summarily arrested in the middle of night, tortured and executed. With little evidence to the contrary, Filonov’s portrait has been explained as an unsuccessful attempt to curry favour with Stalin’s regime by producing an official portrait of the ruler. But this haunting image, where Stalin appears to emerge out of the darkness, his eyes empty, black holes, his cold, hard stare unflinching and merciless, his face appearing more like a death mask than living flesh, instead suggests to me Filonov’s feelings of helplessness and inevitable tragedy in the face of the unforgiving Stalinlist machine.

Prisoner Art from Guantánamo Bay

Muhammad Ansi, ‘Hands Holding Flowers through Bars’, 2016.

In recent weeks, a small art exhibition in New York has raised thorny questions about the link between art and propaganda, creative ownership, and the possibility of judging a work of art irrespective of its creator. Ode to the Sea opened in October 2017 in the gallery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The exhibition features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures created in Guantánamo Bay by eight of the inmates. Four of the men have now been released, while four remain incarcerated as suspected Islamist terrorists. All have been confined to the infamous US prison camp between 10 and 15 years. The artworks were sourced by curator Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime, from American lawyers representing the prisoners.

According to guards, art in Guantánamo Bay dates from the early days of the camp, when inmates often scratched floral designs on Styrofoam cups. During the Obama presidency, an art programme was introduced to provide “intellectual stimulation for the detainees”, allowing them “to express their creativity”. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes were prohibited and the men wore leg shackles during classes. Most of the works produced during these early years have since been confiscated during raids and hunger strikes. But in time, some prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour by being granted art materials and allowed to draw and paint in their cells.

Recalling tales from the notorious prison on Alcatraz, the theme of the sea occurs again and again in the art of the Guantánamo inmates. As Thompson explains, they are haunted by the sound and smell of the sea, but it is hidden from their view.  Only for four days in 2014, as a hurricane approached the island, were the prisoners permitted to stare mesmerised onto the ocean. These savoured days inspired a wave of maritime art, as they attempted to recapture the brief sense of freedom. You can listen to an interview with Erin Thompson on the BBC News website.

Djamel Ameziane, ‘Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea’, 2010.

Djamel Ameziane, a detainee at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2013, also used the metaphor of the sea to describe his imprisonment, depicting his experiences over the years “as a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms during its trip towards an unknown destination, benefiting only from very short periods of respite between two storms.”

Other works on show focus on the drudgery of life in prison, where time seems to stand still. Despite Guantánamo’s association with torture and wrongful detention, the artworks paint a very different picture of life at the camp, one defined by silence, solitude and monotony. In still lifes and landscapes, the prisoners also paint snatched memories of their homelands and former lives, pining for the quiet comforts of tea, sunshine and open spaces. While the artists originated from Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria and Pakistan, the art is surprisingly universal in its design, with the choice of colours and figurative style often recalling European expressionism. Many of the paintings and drawings show an impressive talent for perspective and texture, while Moath al-Alwi’s intricate models of ships, made from discarded items found around the prison, display proficient craftsmanship.

Moath al-Alwi, ‘GIANT’, 2015.

Despite the obvious intrigue of the works on show, some have questioned whether such art should be put on public display, arguing that it is an insult to the victims of terrorism and portrays the detainees in a sympathetic light. Thompson’s defense has been that the setting for the exhibition is key. Scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study terrorism and the legal and ethical implications of detention. Thompson argues that the exhibition is not commenting on the guilt or innocence of the artists, but rather that “these works are invaluable windows into the souls of the men who made them”, questioning the effect of indefinite detention on both prisoners and their keepers. Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni national still detained in the facility, explained to his lawyer that “when I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison. When I start an artwork, I forget myself. Despite being in prison, I try as much as I can to get my soul out of prison. I live a different life when I am making art”.

Abdualmalik Abud, ‘Yemen’, 2015.

The exhibition and subsequent media coverage appears to have taken the US Department of Defense by surprise. As so often, state-controlled propaganda depends on the total dehumanisation of the enemy, even while a lack of understanding might make its own citizens more vulnerable. The practice of allowing Guantánamo’s prisoners to hand over their artwork to lawyers – as gifts or for safekeeping – has now been halted. If any of the remaining 41 detainees are released, they have been told their art will be incinerated, destroying an irreplaceable record of life within an institution that has been at the centre of debate about America’s post-9/11 identity. A Pentagon spokesman recently confirmed to the New York Times that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government”. In response, Erin Thompson notes: “The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare”.

Ameziane Tea

Djamel Ameziane, Tea on a Checkered Cloth, 2010.

If you are in New York and want to make up your own mind, Ode to the Sea continues at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice until 26 January 2018. The exhibition catalogue is also available to read online.

Brazilian Dictatorship and the Bloody Bundles

In the early 1960s, Brazil’s left-leaning president João Goulart made many powerful enemies with his attempts to reduce the exploitative practices of multinational companies, in favour of improving education and labour standards for the Brazilian people. Meanwhile, the US administrations of Kennedy and Johnson were anxious to see Goulart establishing diplomatic relations with Cold War enemies such as China and Cuba, and began to consider his hardliner right-wing opponents the lesser of two evils. On 31 March 1964, with the covert backing of the US government, the Brazilian armed forces led a successful coup d’état. Within two days, a military junta had assumed control of Brazil, heralding more than two decades of brutal repression that was marked by the systemic exile or execution of political opponents and other “undesirables”.

Artur Barrio had moved from Portugal to Brazil in 1955, aged ten years old. In the early years of the dictatorship, the young man trained as an artist at the School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, and watched with concern as civil liberties were eruded. Responding to the rise of paramilitary forces, who prowled the streets, “cleansing” them of homeless adults and children, while student activists, artists and intellectuals started to “disappear”, Barrio created a series of site-specific conceptual artworks in 1969 and 1970, that remain among his best-known projects. Over the course of six months, Barrio made hundreds of “bloody bundles” (trouxas ensangüentadas), which he left in public spaces for people to interact with. The artist conceived of these unwitting individuals as participants in the artwork. Rather than transporting them out of their present reality, as art has often aimed to do, Barrio intended that his objects should open people’s eyes to their current situation, by provoking a sensorial response that would force viewers to confront the atrocities committed by the military regime.

In November 1969, Barrio created the first of his Situation (Situação) works, at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. Titled Situação … ORHHH … ou … 5.000 … T.E … EM … N.Y. … City … 1969, the project evolved over the course of a month, as Barrio placed around the interior of the museum white cloth bags containing concrete and crumpled newspapers to which he eventually added bloodied animal meat. The artist noted the reactions of visitors: some would add their own rubbish or even cash to these oozing piles, while others covered the bags in swear words. At the end of the exhibition, Barrio moved the bundles to the museum’s sculpture garden, where they caught the attention of the local police and were promptly disposed of as garbage.

The following April, Barrio developed this guerrilla-style artistic strategy to produce two ambitious and shockingly visceral “situations” on the streets of Brazil. Defl … Situação … +S+ … RUAS took place in Rio de Janeiro in the first half of April, when the artist walked around the city, leaving behind 500 plastic bags containing animal blood and bones, nails, saliva, hair, urine, feces, paper, sawdust and food waste. The creation of the work and the reactions of passersby were documented by photographer César Carneiro. On 19 and 20 April 1970, Situação T/T took place in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. This project formed part of a four-day happening entitled From Body to Earth (Do Corpo à Terra), organised by Frederico Morais and comprising subversive actions by a number of artists. Barrio anonymously placed bloody bundles in the municipal park and the dried bed of the Arrudas river, as well as unfurling sixty toilet rolls on the banks of the river that highlighted its use as an open sewer. The bags once again contained decomposing animal meat and bones, as well as clay, foam, clothing, wires and knives. The artist intentionally removed any signs that the objects constituted an artwork, and in the current climate many members of the public mistook them for dismembered human body parts. The police force and fire department once again removed and disposed of the mysterious objects, while Carneiro secretly recorded their perplexed reactions.

Perhaps due to the artist’s awareness of the dangers of his involvement coming to the attention of the authorities, Situação T/T would mark the last of Barrio’s “situations”. As censorship and political repression in Brazil became increasingly inescapable, Barrio left for Europe in 1974, where he has continued to produce anti-establishment installation works constructed from the discarded materials of daily life that create surprising and sensory interactions with the public.

Barrio’s Situation works are discussed alongside pieces by other politically-engaged Brazilian artists working in the 1960s and ’70s in the book Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo Meireles by Claudia Calirman (Duke UP, 2012). You can read part of the book online here.

Images: Artur Barrio, Situação … ORHHH … ou … 5.000 … T.E … EM … N.Y. … City … 1969. Installation view at Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, 1969. Courtesy Galeria Millan, São Paulo; Artur Barrio creating Defl … Situação … +S+ … RUAS, Rio de Janeiro, 1970; Artur Barrio creating Situação T/T. Images courtesy arturbarrio-trabalhos.blogspot.com.

St George and the Atomic Dragon

tsereteli good defeats evil (2)

Perched majestically atop his trusty steed, while delivering a death blow with a spear to the contorted monster at his feet, St George appears incongruous with the lofty skyscrapers that rise above him in Manhattan. What could have caused this valiant knight to venture into the concrete jungle?

The bronze effigy of St George came to New York in 1990, in the twilight months of the Cold War, to take up residence in the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters. The sculpture was a gift of the failing Soviet Union, on the occasion of the UN’s 45th anniversary. Titled Good Defeats Evil, the statue pays tribute to the UN’s role in presiding over a series of treaties that furthered the cause of nuclear disarmament, starting with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom in 1968. The figure of the two-headed dragon that lies at the base of the statue is a direct result of the later Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 between the United States and Soviet Union. The dragon is formed from the scraps of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear missiles, which were destroyed under the terms of the 1987 treaty. Standing 12 metres (39ft) high and weighing 40 tonnes, Good Defeats Evil is a bombastic symbol of the Gorbachev government’s commitment to ending the Cold War, which would inadvertently take place the following year with the dissolution of the bankrupt USSR.

The extravagance of this statue will be of little surprise to any visitors from Moscow, where its creator is notorious for installing what many residents consider an unsightly eyesore. The most famous work by the elderly Georgian-Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, is the monumental Peter the Great Statue, which stands on an artificial island in the middle of the Moskva River. The sculpture has been widely derided by Muscovites since it was installed in 1997. At 94 metres (308ft) high, the gargantuan figure forged from stainless steel, bronze and copper is credited as the eighth tallest statue in the world – higher than the Statue of Liberty – and is unmissable from miles around. It is so unpopular in Moscow that a rumour is widely circulated that it was originally conceived as a statue of Christopher Columbus, to mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World in 1492; but that the US government wisely rejected it, and it was instead repurposed and sold on to the foolhardy Moscow authorities as a tribute to the legendary Russian tsar. Tsereteli vehemently denies the story, although his proposed statue of Columbus, entitled Birth of the New World, was indeed rejected by the US government in 1992 and would struggle to find a home until it was finally erected in Puerto Rico in 2016. The fact that Peter the Great famously loathed Moscow and moved his capital to the eponymous St Petersburg only adds to the ongoing ire among Muscovites, although attempts to knock the statue from its perch have so far been blocked by the appreciative administration of St Petersburg native, Vladimir Putin.

By comparison, Good Defeats Evil has found a more receptive audience in Manhattan. In the gardens of the UN Headquarters, it shares a home with another dramatic Soviet sculpture, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares by Evgenii Vuchetich. In 1959, in the aftermath of the successful Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York, the sculpture was likewise gifted to the United Nations as a symbol of the Soviet commitment to nuclear disarmament. Espionart readers will recognise it as part of the blog’s logo.

In an ironic twist, since 2001, Good Defeats Evil has stood in the shadow of the Trump World Tower. This dramatic symbol of Cold War disarmament is now dwarfed by a skyscraper bearing the name of the new president, who in recent months has expressed a desire to reverse 50 years of US policy by augmenting the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

Images: Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990. United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo: flickr user Al_HikesAZ, CC BY 2.0; Zurab Tsereteli, Peter the Great Statue, 1997. Moskva River, Moscow, 2012. Photo: flickr user e_chaya, CC BY 2.0; Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957. United Nations Headquarters, New York; Trump World Tower behind the Good Defeats Evil by Zurab Tsereteli, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2007. Courtesy Getty Images.