The Secret Art of Pinochet’s Chile

Having been forced to call free presidential elections on 14 December 1989, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was finally removed from power, bringing to an end 16 years of military rule. Pinochet had taken the presidency in 1973 following a US-backed coup d’état, which deposed the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and established a junta in its place.

The restoration of democracy in Chile also enabled the artistic collective Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) to come out of hiding. The group had been founded by young communist artists in 1968 and for five years had covered Santiago’s streets with colourful murals campaigning for radical social change.

Following the 1973 coup BRP activists were arrested and their murals were painted over by the military government. Although not defeated, the artists were driven underground, continuing to paint secretly in defiance of Pinochet’s regime. The danger of being caught meant large murals were impossible, so the artists instead created a tag: a letter R within a circle with a star next to it. The R stood for resistance, the circle for unity, and the star as a symbol of the BRP.

Since their liberation, the BRP artists have once again brightened the streets of Chile with murals championing contemporary causes including indigenous rights and educational reform.

This wonderful story is told more extensively in Gideon Long’s report on the BBC News website: The Chilean Muralists Who Defied Pinochet.

Image: BRP mural honouring Jecar Nehgme, a left-wing activist shot dead by Pinochet’s forces in 1989 and one of the last victims of the junta.

War and Peace in San Francisco

In a momentous event in world history, from 4 to 11 February 1945 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin convened in Crimea’s Livadia Palace to decide the future of post-war Germany. As a result of the controversial Yalta Conference, the country was divided into four zones of occupation, with each assigned to the management of one of the four wartime Allies: the USA, the USSR, Great Britain and France. Within months conflict between the occupying forces of the divided Germany would ignite the Cold War.

Watching the escalation of tensions with concern, Russian-born American artist Anton Refregier decided to include a permanent reminder of the wartime alliance as the triumphant centrepiece of his 27-part mural in the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco.

The mural had been commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts of the Treasury Department as one of the last projects of the New Deal art programmes. By the time Refregier’s mural was unveiled to the public in 1949, Cold War hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union made the contents of the work highly contentious. The prominent position Refregier afforded to the Soviet symbols of the hammer and sickle led to accusations of communist subversion and the mural became the subject of a prolonged debate, with many groups calling for its removal. In the end the defense of freedom of expression proved victorious, and Refregier’s depiction of the history of California remains open to public view in which is now the Rincon Center office and apartment complex.

Image: Anton Refregier, War and Peace, 1948. Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco. The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

What & Where: Gerhard Richter’s Hidden Mural

What: Gerhard Richter, The Joy of Life, 1956
Where: Deutsches Hygiene Museum, Dresden, Germany (not on display)

Richter mural of the German Hygiene Museum, Dresden, 1956An early mural by one of the world’s most famous artists takes pride of place in the foyer of a major German museum – but you can’t see it. In 1956 the 24-year-old Gerhard Richter created The Joy of Life whilst an art student at the Dresden Academy of Arts. As an example of the official Soviet artistic style of socialist realism, in which Richter was forced to work, the ten-metre-long mural is an inevitable paean to the wonders of socialism, depicting exuberant workers dancing against a backdrop of factories and tractors. After his defection to the west, and his subsequent criticism of the art produced in his native East Germany, the mural was painted over by the authorities in 1979.

Since the Berlin Wall came down, there have been repeated calls for the mural to once again see the light of day. However, Richter has dismissed the work as ‘a waste of money’ and ‘not worth preserving’. No doubt the artist is troubled by the prospect of adding to his public oeuvre a work in which he takes no pride, produced under a system in which he had no faith. Until such time as the mural may be revealed, one can only speculative on its relative flaws and merits from this meagre black and white photograph.

You can read more about The Joy of Life in an article published in The Art Newspaper: Cold War cover-up to continue.

Iran’s Cold War Murals

On 4 November 1979 Iranian students stormed the Embassy of the United States in Tehran, beginning the Iran Hostage Crisis. The event, which was recently dramatised to Oscar-winning effect in Argo, triggered a rupture in Iran-US relations that continues to dominate global politics.

Iran mural

After the end of the crisis on 20 January 1981 the now-abandoned embassy was found to be covered in anti-American murals. In the decades following the Islamic Revolution mural art has been a notable feature of the Iranian urban environment, mirroring the popularity of politicised muralism in post-revolutionary Mexico and Depression-era America. Beginning as a spontaneous expression of revolutionary zeal, the production of murals was increasingly institutionalised in the 1980s, commissioned by the new Iranian government as basic but effective propaganda. Public murals in Iran’s major cities often associated the country’s enemies, in particular the United States, with the iconography of death, while glorifying Iranians who had died fighting for the revolutionary cause.

Iran mural interior

With the rise of television and the internet as more immediate propaganda tools, Iranian state-sponsored murals began to dwindle. But the formation in 2001 of a new governmental department in Tehran specially tasked with managing mural paintings and graphics shows that there is still a place for the mural in Iranian public life.

You can find out more in this fascinating essay by Bahamin Azadi: Painted Politics: The Mural in Modern Iran. And see more examples of Iranian murals in this Huffington Post gallery.

Images: Murals painted on the exterior and interior walls of the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran.

What & Where: Oxford’s Military Murals

What: Murals by servicemen of the United States Air Force
Where: RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, UK (now closed)

Mural_SPI_by_John_GeruntinoOxford Archaeology recently announced the launch of a project to record the Cold War paintings on the internal walls of former airbase, RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. The majority of the artwork was created by American servicemen, who were stationed there between 1950 and 1991. The soldiers were part of a strategically-placed US Air Force presence in Britain to enable a fast response by American fighter aircraft should the Cold War suddenly turn hot.

An official scheme called ‘Project Warrior’ from the 1980s encouraged the airmen to produce art to prevent boredom and improve their integration. With subject matter ranging from patriotic symbols and pop culture to menacing comments on current political concerns, the variously sardonic and humourous murals at RAF Upper Heyford show both positive and negative responses to military action.

A sample of the work can be seen on the RAF Upper Heyford memorial website.

John Geruntino, mural in hallway of LE Building, RAF Upper Heyford, 1986–1991

What & Where: Brixton’s Nuclear Dawn

What: Nuclear Dawn mural by Brian Barnes and Dale McCrea
Where: Carlton Mansions, 387 Coldhabour Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8QD, UK

For over 30 years, inhabitants in one corner of London have experienced a daily reminder of the fear and paranoia of the Cold War. The eye-catching mural, Nuclear Dawn, was painted between 1980 and 1981 by local resident Dale McCrea and English mural artist Brian Barnes, as a potent call for nuclear disarmament and a warning against the potential repercussions of escalating international tensions.

130826 Nuclear Dawn

Measuring 25 square metres, the mural depicts a giant skeleton striding across the city of London. Swathed in the flags of the United States, Great Britain and the USSR, the figure drops nuclear missiles from his hand. In the background, a vast mushroom cloud swirls around to form a map of the world and screaming faces. From one side a human arm releases a peace dove, which upon reaching the skeleton is transformed into the symbol of the CND. Meanwhile, in the bottom right corner, eminent politicians including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan shelter in a nuclear bunker below the Houses of Parliament. Despite its political message, the mural received funding from bodies including the local council and the Arts Council.

The London Mural Preservation Society provides the most thorough account of the mural’s history, and is also leading a Facebook campaign for the mural’s preservation and restoration.