Truman: The Most Hated Statue in Greece

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Greek Civil War in October 1949. The conflict between monarchists and communists erupted soon after the end of the country’s occupation during World War II left a power vacuum at the heart of the birthplace of democracy. Although Stalin chose not to support the insurgents, the conflict is considered to be the first proxy war of the Cold War, with the monarchists backed by Britain and the United States, while the communists were mainly supported by Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The Truman Doctrine, named after US President Harry Truman, was instrumental in releasing billions in US government funds to support the monarchists and to provide equal economic and military support to Turkey, which was also at risk of entering the Soviet sphere. The strategy proved effective and a subsequent victory for the Kingdom of Greece suppressed the spread of communism in Southern Europe.

Yet the disagreement that gave rise to the conflict has continued to fester, exacerbated by the Greek military coup d’état in 1967 which heralded seven years of rule by a far-right junta who imprisoned or exiled thousands of suspects communists and political opponents. US support for the junta, deeply unpopular among the Greeks but an expedient anti-communist ally for the West, led to growing anti-Americanism during the dictatorship. This only increased when the US failed to support Greece in halting the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. In the Greek capital, anger against US ‘imperialism’ has repeatedly found a target in one unfortunate work of art.

Earlier this year, Greek communists were arrested for an attack on a 12-foot bronze statue of Truman, erected near the US Embassy in 1963 by the conservative US-based American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). Set up without the consent of the Athens city authorities, the statue has been controversial from the start. In 2018, activists protesting US-led airstrikes in Syria used a metal grinder to cut off its feet and ropes in an attempt to topple it to the ground, before they were repelled by riot police with tear gas.

 But this is just the latest attack the statue has withstood. Over the last 55 years, it has being bombed four times – on one occasion causing the death of a nearby policeman, attacked with a chainsaw and successfully toppled on at least five occasions. In more imaginative protests, the statue has been doused in pink and red paint (perhaps a nod to David Černý’s Pink Tank in Prague) and wrapped up in packaging paper marking it for return delivery to the United States. When a bomb in 1986 tore the statue apart, an exasperated Mayor of Athens suggested replacing Truman with a statue of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps hoping that the American Civil War hero would prove less aggravating. But the AHEPA insisted on bringing Truman back from the dead.

Recounting the misfortunes that have befallen the statue, in a country famous for its sculpture, some commentators have asked if it has become ‘the most hated’ in Athens. Even those Greeks who are ambivalent to the statue have wondered why it is there, when some of the country’s greatest politicians, leaders and intellectuals have not received similar recognition, and there is not even a Truman statue on display in the president’s own hometown. But with the sculpture once again patched up and receiving a vocal defense from the US Ambassador to Greece, it doesn’t look like Truman will be leaving his podium any time soon.

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Nicaragua’s Revolutionary Murals

The present day turmoil in Central America, that leads so many to risk death or incarceration while attempting to cross the US border, has its origins in the Cold War. The civil wars and revolutions that reached their peak during the 1970s are collectively known as the Central American Crisis. This unrest in turn had its origins in the so-called Banana Wars of the early twentieth century, when the United States sent armed forces to occupy countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, in order to maintain control over plantations and to dominate regional trade.

Espionart earlier looked at Glorious Victory, a mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera that expressed his outrage at a CIA-led coup in Guatemala that deposed the democratically-elected president, in support of the interests of the nefarious American United Fruit Company. The great Mexican mural movement, of which Rivera was leader, later inspired Nicaraguan artists to work together on creating numerous public paintings that responded to the long years of conflict in that country.

The Nicaraguan Revolution began as a series of uprisings against the ruthless dictatorship of the US-backed Somoza family, which ruled for over 42 years until it was swept from power on 17 July 1979 by the Sandinista rebels. In turn, the socialist Sandinistas were challenged by the Contras, right-wing militias trained and funded by the United States. Over the next two decades, both sides systematically terrorised and murdered civilians, with indigenous communities in particular decimated as they were – and continue to be – scapegoated as outsiders in their own countries.

Mural by the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama, 1980. Photo: David Schwartz.

After the Sandinista victory in 1979, murals began to spring up across Nicaragua. The first pro-Sandinista murals were in fact painted in Panama, a southern neighbour that provided both support and refuge to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) during its years of insurrection. Brothers Virgilio and Ignacio Ortega formed the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama in the 1970s, painting starkly confrontational social realist murals near army bases and police stations. Soon after the coup, members of the brigade relocated to Nicaragua at the invitation of the FSLN, as the new government recognised the potential for consolidating its power through painting.

As the movement gained pace, international mural artists travelled to Nicaragua, resulting in the creation of over 300 murals during the decade that followed the Sandinista takeover. While the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama tended to depict Sandinista revolutionaries, the mural movement grew to include romantic or domestic scenes of an idealised post-revolutionary future, celebrating Nicaragua’s cultural heritage and supporting the FSLN drive towards mass literacy, universal health care, and gender equality.

Alejandro Canales, ‘Homage to Women’, 1980, Managua. Photo: David Schwartz.

While in power, the Sandinistas passed laws to protect the murals. But after they were voted out of office in 1990, the new pro-US right-wing government oversaw the destruction of many of the paintings, despite the efforts of local communities to preserve and restore them. Others took it upon themselves to document the murals, providing a lasting record for these lost artworks. During the 1980s, Albright College professor, David Schwartz, took full-colour images of many of the murals, some of which have been made available online. At the height of the destruction, UCLA art history professor David Kunzle also travelled to Nicaragua and succeeded in recording about 80 percentage of the original works. His book, The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua, 1979–1992, was published in 1995 and is partly available to view at Google Books.

But the Sandinista murals would prove to be as resilient as the political movement they celebrated. In the 2006 Nicaraguan general election, the FSLN and its leader, Daniel Ortega, once again claimed the presidency, heralding the start of a new mural movement across the country.

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Estampa Popular and Spain’s Anti-Francoist Art

The Spanish Civil War, which for almost three years from 17 July 1936 tore the European nation apart, resulted in 1939 in the establishment of a military dictatorship under the formidable General Francisco Franco. During World War II, the Spanish autocrat provided strategic support to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, repaying the countries’ backing of his Nationalist rebels during the Civil War. But in the advent of the Cold War, Franco found himself courted by the West, as the devoutly anti-communist state proved an uncomfortable though useful ally in efforts to resist Soviet influence in Southern Europe.

Espionart has previously explored how the United States used the visual arts as a means of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Spain in the 1950s. The Franco regime meanwhile hoped to obscure memory of its wartime alliance with the Axis powers by encouraging its artists to embrace a modern Western style. This favourable atmosphere led to a surge in abstract art groups in Spain, from the surrealist Dau al Set in Barcelona and the non-objective painting of El Paso artists in Madrid, to the constructivism of Parpalló in Valencia and Basque artists aligned to Gaur.

Selection of Estampa Popular prints, 1959–66, on display in Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2016.

Although many of the artists associated with these groups were anti-Francoist, at the same time a counter movement arose among artists who felt that, if the regime favoured abstraction, then resistance required them to reject the avant-garde. While the state adopted popular American artistic narratives of art for art’s sake, projecting art as free, individualist and apolitical, artists explicitly against Franco emphasised art as collective and socially-engaged.

The Estampa Popular (‘Popular Press’) group was founded in Madrid in 1959 by José García Ortega (1921–1990), a social realist painter and engraver who was also a prominent member of the outlawed Spanish Communist Party (PCE). Ortega’s politics resulted in him being jailed in the late 1940s and then exiled between 1960 and 1977, during which time he lived in Italy and France, and befriended Picasso. In the founding manifesto of Estampa Popular in 1959, Ortega stated “that an art at the service of the people must reflect the social and political reality of its time and requires above all the union of content and realist forms”.

Ricardo Zamorano, ‘Jornaleros, España, loma a loma’ (‘Day labourers, Spain, hill to hill’), n.d.

Rapidly gaining support, Estampa Popular grew into a complex artistic network that extended to cities across Spain. The movement brought together a broad range of artists who shared a wish to use their art to bring down Franco’s dictatorship, which would continue until his death in 1975. Printmaking was its primary artistic medium, in line with other anti-elitist art movements around the world, and drawing in particular on the graphic art that thrived in revolutionary Mexico.

Estampa Popular workshops were established in numerous Spanish cities, providing artists with access to cheap printing techniques that made art affordable to all, while increasing the speed and ease with which they could produce protest posters. While working in a variety of styles, Estampa Popular artists tended to favour bold, figurative designs that were accessible and clearly comprehensible. In content, the prints bore witness to the dark side of Francoism and exposed false narratives of the regime, highlighting brutal political repression and the economic hardship imposed on rural communities and industrial labourers by the relentless drive towards modernisation.

Francisco Álvarez, ‘Manifestación’ (‘Demonstration’), c.1962. Courtesy Museo Reina Sofía.

Estampa Popular started to dwindle in the late 1960s, gradually replaced by groups such as Equipo Crónica and Equipo Realidad, which blended anti-Francoist sentiment with styles inspired by the global pop art movement. But it would prove to have far-reaching influence on art in Cold War Spain, empowering artists to seek alternatives to compliance with the regime’s vision of modern art.

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Monument to Syria in a Divided Dresden

The row of three upended buses facing the Frauenkirche in central Dresden appears at odds with the elaborate stone building. What could these dirty, disused vehicles have in common with a marvel of 18th-century architecture? But nothing is quite as it seems and, in many ways, these objects hold a mirror to one another, across time and distance.

On the morning of 15 February 1945, seventy-two years ago today, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) collapsed into charred ruins, following two days of aggressive bombardment of Dresden by allied forces at the end of World War II. The devastation wrought on the German city is still the subject of controversy, and resonates through contemporary debates about the targeting of civilian infrastructure in current Middle Eastern conflicts. For over half a century, while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the beloved church was designated a war memorial and lay in ruins. Only after the reunification of Germany were plans unveiled for the reconstruction of the building, and between 1994 and 2005 the Frauenkirche was meticulously pieced back together according to its original design. Today it is considered a symbol of peace and forgiveness after war.

The three buses that now stand across the square from the church comprise an art installation by Manaf Halbouni, entitled Monument. Raised in Damascus by a German mother and Syrian father, Halbouni relocated to Dresden in 2009 to study sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, he watched from afar as his former home descended into a vicious civil war. An image of the conflict that stands out in his mind is a street scene of 2015 in the ravaged northern Syrian city of Aleppo, showing a young boy walking past three upended buses. This makeshift barricade had been erected by rebel militiamen to shield Aleppo’s citizens from sniper fire.

In conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Halbouni recalled: “I was fascinated by the images and the energy that went behind the efforts to stand the buses upright like that. I was fascinated too by the ordinary street life taking place in the city behind the protection of the buses. Children playing on the streets and people riding bikes. It was surreal.” Halbouni reproduced the scene with three buses discarded by the Nuremberg transport network, each weighing 12 tonnes and standing 40 feet high. The artist intentionally used these ordinary public vehicles to symbolise the peace that exists in Germany, in contrast to contemporary life in Syria.

Funded by the city and installed as part of a cultural festival, Halbouni’s Monument has divided opinion in Germany. The installation has been warmly received by the Frauenkirche Dresden Foundation, which praises it for both memorialising the experiences of the city’s residents under bombardment, and highlighting the ongoing plight of people in war-torn locations around the world. The Kunsthaus Dresden, which sponsored the project, has hailed Monument for symbolising “a connection between the people of the Middle East and Europe and our shared destinies”.

Yet despite the work advocating peace and reconstruction, its inauguration on 7 February 2017 was disrupted by violent protests and clashes between the police and members of far-right activist groups. These groups have recently grown in strength, as high levels of immigration into Germany by people fleeing conflict have given rise to xenophobia and Islamophobia. They have since attempted to bring a lawsuit against Halbouni for “glorifying terrorism”. Dresden’s mayor, Dirk Hilbert, who has received death threats for allowing the installation to go ahead, has argued that these actions only prove the importance of Monument, since “the right-wing populists, not only in our city but also across Europe, are building themselves up by forgetting”. By bringing Dresden face-to-face with Aleppo, Manaf Halbouni’s work warns us against letting history be repeated and advises us to learn the lessons of the past.

Monument will remain in the Dresden Neumarkt until 3 April 2017. You can watch a short film about the planning and construction of the installation here:

Images: The Frauenkirche and Monument by Manaf Halbouni, February 2017. Photo © dpa/Sebastian Kahnert – Dresden;  Young boy walking past a barricade of buses in Aleppo on 14 March 2015. Photo Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty Images.

Witness to the Lebanese Civil War

On 13 April 1975, the start of the Lebanese Civil War was sparked by an incident known as the Bus Massacre. Early morning skirmishes on the streets of Beirut – between guerrilla fighters linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and right-wing Lebanese Christian militiamen – escalated dramatically, as the indiscriminate shooting at a church congregation led to a retaliatory assault on a bus full of Palestinian men, women, and children. From the late 1950s, the Cold War had caused the disintegration of Lebanese civil society, as Western nations and Soviet-aligned Arab countries frequently intervened in the domestic conflict between rival religious groups. Ill-feeling resulting from the Bus Massacre pushed this tension to breaking point, and Lebanon rapidly spiralled into a fully-fledged civil war that would continue throughout the 1980s.

Working in the shadow of a vicious conflict that raged for almost 16 years and left one million people homeless, Lebanese artists were and continue to be affected powerfully by the country’s civil war. The tragic destruction of the capital city is epitomised for many in the broken, bullet-ridden remains of the Martyrs’ Monument. Completed by Italian sculptor Renato Marino Mazzacurati in 1960, the four-meter-high statue stands at the centre of Martyrs’ Square, so named after the Lebanese revolutionaries executed there by the Ottomans in 1916. During the civil war, this public space in the heart of downtown Beirut became the demarcation line that divided the city in half. Although restored in the late 1990s, the damage to the monument was preserved as a sign of the long years of suffering.

Beirut-born installation and video artist, Mona Hatoum, is just one of many artists who have produced work focusing on the Lebanese Civil War as a cathartic response to the havoc wrought on their homeland. Hatoum has returned to the image of the Martyrs’ Monument several times to commemorate the destruction of Lebanese arts and culture, as well as the psychological impact of the civil war on the Lebanese people. In 2008, she worked in collaboration with Iraq al Amir Women Cooperative Society to produce a small, simplified version of the monument in ceramics and stone. The following year, while she undertook a five-week residency in Beirut, Hatoum produced a second replica of the statue, this time a more faithful rendition in porcelain. Both sculptures feature the bullet holes and broken limbs of the mutilated bronze original and are entitled Witness, a word that personifies the Martyrs’ Monument as a silent witness to the civil war, and has its root in the Arabic word for ‘martyr’ (‘shahid’).

Hatoum’s return to the image demonstrates her interest in how the meaning of memorials changes over time, and also points to the effect of the civil war on her own sense of self, as an artist who identifies as Palestinian-British. In 2010, Hatoum used the title of the work for her homecoming solo exhibition at the Beirut Art Center.

Image: Renato Marino Mazzacurati, Martyrs’ Monument, 1960. Photographed in Martyrs’ Square, Beirut, by beirutmabitmoot.wordpress.com; Mona Hatoum, Witness, 2008. Ceramics and stone, 84 x 57 x 35 cm. The Khalid Shoman Collection; Mona Hatoum, Witness, 2009. Porcelain biscuit, 49 x 24.3 x 24.3 cm.

Greek Art After the Civil War

For many historians, the international response to the Greek Civil War is considered to mark the starting point of the Cold War. The conflict between the Greek government (backed by Western powers) and the Greek Communist Party (supported by regimes in Eastern Europe) arose out of the power vacuum that followed the end of the wartime occupation of Greece and lasted for three and a half years. It came to an end on 16 October 1949, with communism defeated.

That year also saw the launch of a number of artistic groups, formed with the aim of bringing Greeks together after the crisis. Among them were the Armos and Stathmi groups, which both received their first exhibitions in 1950 in Athens. Combining their training in Greek mythology and folk art with the teachings of the European avant-garde, the work on display ranged from the male nudes of Yannis Tsarouchis and the mythological surrealism of Nikos Engonopoulos to the cubist imaginings of Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas and the expressionist landscapes of Spyros Vassiliou. Together these artists would help shape a modern, post-war Greek identity through the soothing power of painting.

Nikos Engonopoulos, Apparition of Rigas Feraios in Evia, 1950. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Athens; Spyros Vassiliou, Galaxidi, 1950. Oil on wood © A. G. Leventis Gallery.

Rivera Paints the Guatemalan Coup d’État

In one of the most ignoble missions in the CIA’s Cold War history, on 18 June 1954 the intelligence agency led US-backed troops in a covert invasion of Guatemala. The objective: a coup d’état to remove from power the hugely-popular and democratically-elected president, Jacobo Árbenz. The politician had created powerful enemies in the US with his land reforms, which claimed back from the American United Fruit Company vast areas that had been given away by an earlier dictatorship, in gratitude for US support. After Árbenz was overthrown the country was ruled by a military junta for the next 4 decades, during which time the government committed genocide against the remaining Mayan population during the Guatemalan Civil War.

In the aftermath of Árbenz’s deposition and exile, the legendary Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, responded with a vitriolic canvas. The mockingly-titled Glorious Victory depicts John Foster Dulles, CIA Director (and board member of United Fruit Company) shaking hands with Colonel Castillo Armas, the leader of the coup who would soon take the presidency for himself. At their feet stands an anthropomorphised bomb bearing the grinning face of US President Eisenhower. The trio are surrounded by the slaughtered bodies of Guatemalan workers.

Rivera was a committed communist, who gave a home to Trotsky after his exile from the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union is where the mural (painted on linen) was sent, as a donation to the workers of the USSR. After touring behind the Iron Curtain until 1958 the painting went missing and was thought to have been destroyed. But it was only revealed in 2000 that Rivera’s mural had been in storage for nearly half a century in Moscow’s State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. It enjoyed a triumphant return to Mexico in 2007 for an exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Image: Diego Rivera, Glorious Victory, 1954. Movable mural painted on linen. State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.