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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Indonesia’s Banned Communist Art

In the early hours of 1 October 1965 a group of Indonesian army officers calling themselves the 30 September Movement assassinated six army generals. Unrest quickly spread across Jakarta as several thousand members of the Indonesian National Armed Forces attempted to stage a coup d’état against President Sukarno. Due to poor planning by the rebels and the superior military strategy of Major General Suharto, the future president, by the end of the day the coup attempt had collapsed.

The reasons for the assassinations are still disputed, from claims it was an internal army affair led by junior officers resentful of the generals’ corruption, to conspiracy theories about CIA and MI6 collusion. However, official blame immediately fell on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In the months that following, a violent anti-communist purge by the army resulted in the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists.

These events also brought an end to Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat (LEKRA), a communist art movement that was banned in the aftermath of the coup attempt. The group was founded in August 1950 by artists and writers keen to follow the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, and associated artists specialised in paintings highlighting the struggles of the Indonesian people. As the purge gained pace, members of LEKRA were killed or imprisoned for the controversial subject matter of their art. One such artist was Hendra Gunawan, who was released only in 1978.

Image: Hendra Gunawan, War and Peace, 1950. Oil on canvas, 94 x 140 cm. National Gallery, Singapore.

Iraq’s Modernist Monument to the 14 July Revolution

On 14 July 1958 a secret military group of Arab nationalists, known as the Free Officers, staged a coup d’état in Iraq. The revolution aimed to eliminate the Hashemith monarchy and the last vestiges of British colonial rule in the country. During the coup 23-year-old King Faisal II and his family were assassinated, removing a key ally in the West’s attempts to combat Soviet influence in the Middle East. Following the pattern of so many post-revolutionary countries, the Republic of Iraq rapidly descended into a militarised state controlled by an oppressive regime, which gave rise to the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

In 1959 the famous painter and sculptor Jawad Saleem was asked by the Iraqi government to design a monument to commemorate the 14 July Revolution. The El Haria (Liberty) Monument in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square is today one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and has overlooked many dramatic scenes during the republic’s turbulent history.

The frieze, which blends neo-classical design with modernist flair, comprises 25 human figures together with a horse and a bull, cast in bronze and welded together against a marble background. Although Saleem’s death in 1961 prevented his seeing the final construction, it remains a lasting tribute to Iraq’s history as a centre for modern art.

Images: Baghdad’s Tahrir Square by Ahmed Al Jrah

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.