When the Berlin Wall Came Down… in Iceland

Since the night the wall came down – in November 1989 – pieces of the Berlin Wall have travelled far and wide. Over forty countries now host sections of the wall, from Italy and the Vatican to Singapore and South Africa. Along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, several sections face out onto the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in an installation arranged by the nearby Wende Museum of the Cold War; while Jamaica received a portion in 2010 as a gift to record-breaking sprinter Usain Bolt; and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California holds a piece of the wall given to the former US President the year after it was dismantled.

In October 2015, Iceland became the latest country to welcome a segment of the Berlin Wall. To mark the 25th anniversary of German reunification in 1990, this concrete block was gifted to Reykjavík by the City of Berlin. The Icelandic capital was chosen due to its role in a pivotal moment of the Cold War. In October 1986, the Reykjavík Summit between Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made important progress in building trust between the rival nations. Even though the summit was curtailed prior to any formal agreement, the politicians’ discussions were the basic for a denuclearisation treaty the following year.

The 3.7-metre high section of wall was transported from the Neu West Berlin gallery, weighing 4 tonnes. The gallery boasts the largest holding of remnants from the wall and has actively sought to send them out around the world, to keep the lessons of the Berlin Wall alive for future generations and people from many different countries. However, since American street artist Keith Haring painted on the wall under the media glare in 1986, the Berlin Wall has become equally famous for its art as its atrocities. With demand for painted sections of the wall exceeding availability, the Neu West Berlin gallery has resorted to commissioning young German artists to apply new painting to original wall segments. For Reykjavík, the City of Berlin chose a design by Jakob Wagner of the LuxPopArt Group.

 Wagner’s design, repeated on both sides of the wall, is entitled ‘Mao I’ and shows a figure inspired by the mysterious monolithic heads of Easter Island – an apt reference point for its placement on an empty strip of land overlooking the sea. Wagner’s figures appear in fluorescent pink, orange, yellow, blue and green, a nod to the vividness of the figures created since 1984 by Thierry Noir, the first artist to paint on the wallThese bright colours are greatly at odds with the muted, windswept landscape outside Höfði House, where Reagan and Gorbachev met and where the Berlin Wall segment found a new home. A landscape so windswept, in fact, that the wall would prove little match for the elements.

Only a year and a half after the Berlin Wall arrived in Iceland, the paint had begun to flake off both sides of the wall, until the conservation team at the Reykjavík Art Museum assessed that the damage was irreversible. Wagner’s painting had to be completely stripped from the wall and the artist was despatched to repaint it in August 2017 – choosing to make some changes to the design and to give one side of the wall a new colour scheme. This time, a primer was applied underneath the paint, and a thick layer of varnish was added to provide extra protection.

The news that the painting had been “destroyed by the unforgiving Icelandic weather” was met with a certain amount of national pride in the local press, no doubt enhanced by the wall’s reputation of hardiness and impenetrability. It remains to be seen how the repainted section will fare. In the meantime, you can own your own miniature version of the Reykjavík wall – under the collective title of Kings of Freedom, ‘Mao I’ and other designs by Wagner and original Berlin Wall artists, including Thierry Noir, are available as 1:25 collectibles in German porcelain through the VisibleWall website.

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The Not-so-Secret Art of the CIA

Taryn Simon, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency, Art, CIA Original Headquarters Building, Langley, Virginia’, 2003/2007.

The above photograph, by American artist Taryn Simon, appears innocuous, even banal, at first. It shows two modern paintings hanging on bare white walls, cordoned off by limp rope barriers, while harsh fluorescent ceiling lights cause their reflection to bounce off the glossy laminate floor. But the photograph instantly appears more enticing and enigmatic when one reads the caption, indicating that it was taken at the headquarters of the US Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. Simon’s photograph is part of her 2007 series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, presenting viewpoints that are largely inaccessible to the general public. It is therefore ironic that the photograph would itself provoke a decade of investigation and debate into the limits of government transparency.

Intrigued by the photograph when she first saw it in 2008, Portland-based artist Johanna Barron was inspired to discover more about the CIA’s collection of abstract paintings. However, she could find little available information, save for a single page on the CIA website, without any images, and some passing details in a book about the agency. Although the absence of information was perhaps unsurprising for a cash-strapped federally-funded institution, Barron decided to delve further by submitting a series of FOIA requests. This would be the first step in a complex artistic project that would occupy Barron for years to come.

Johanna Barron with selections from her recreation of the Melzac Collection held by the CIA, 2015. Photo (c) James Rexroad. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

As any researcher who has gone through the arduous process of locating and accessing archival documents can tell you, asking overworked librarians to find material on your behalf rarely delivers results. Barron would have a similar response to her FOIA requests. Her appeals for photographs of the collection and acquisition records, including information about tax breaks for donors and funding for purchases, were repeatedly denied on the grounds that documents relating to the paintings were not “government records” and therefore not covered by FOIA regulations. Once again, a lack of readily-available information that elsewhere would have likely been explained by a processing mix-up or scarce resources, here took on an air of mystery, with the CIA appearing evasive. Barron’s quest for information only accelerated, as she commented: “I felt this increasing need to try to uncover details that seemed to be kept secret for no logical reason”. Eventually, in 2014, Barron received almost 100 pages of heavily-redacted documentation, that allowed her to piece together more details about the collection.

The abstract paintings that had caught Barron’s eye were part a small group loaned to the CIA by Vincent Melzac, a larger-than-life art collector and former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. From 1968, Melzac shared with the agency a series of paintings by artists affiliated with the Washington Color School. Twenty years later, the CIA purchased eleven of the works, although after Melzac’s death in 1989, his estate also agreed to continue loaning additional canvases. Barron used this new-found information to create 3/4 scale reproductions of some of the 29 paintings, which she first exhibited in 2015 under the title Acres of Walls. Appearing alongside the redacted documents and details of her interactions with the CIA, Barron presented the installation as a commentary on the limits of government transparency and the absurdity of secrecy for the sake of secrecy.

Barron’s tale of intrigue was readily picked up by the cultural press, with art writers easily believing that the intelligence community was intentionally hiding paintings from the prying public. Artnet asked “Why Won’t the CIA Reveal the Paintings in Its Secret Art Collection?“; CNN demanded “Why won’t the CIA reveal what’s in its art collection?“; Hyperallergic mused “Why Does the CIA Keep Its Art Collection Secret?“; while the Smithsonian Magazine announced “The CIA Won’t Reveal What’s in its Secret Art Collection“! However, the following year, one of the writers whose interest had been piqued by Barron’s project decided to take the investigation further – turning the story on its head.

Gene Davis, ‘Black Rhythm’, 1964. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Alerted by DC-based artist Barbara Januszkiewicz that the CIA art collection might not be as secret as it at first appeared, Carey Dunne, a reporter for Hyperallergic, contacted the agency’s Public Affairs office. She was surprised to find that before long, arrangements were made for her to visit Langley and that she was permitted to make public details of her tour of the art collection, including photographs. Alongside a wide array of art dotted throughout the CIA headquarters, including representational paintings celebrating the agency’s achievements and official portraits of past CIA directors, the abstract paintings from Melzac’s collection took pride of place.

Mundane reasons given for this collection included brightening up the building with art that matched the date of the architecture (construction on the Old Headquarters Building was completed in 1961) and related to Langley’s location in the Washington metropolitan area. However, Dunne uncovered a fascinating aspect to the CIA’s collection of abstract art – that it was also used for training purposes. As Carolyn Reams, former director of the CIA Museum, explained, agents are asked to analyse the paintings to develop their problem-solving skills: “Say you’ve got to analyze this big, heavy duty ISIL problem over here — maybe if you come look at the painting, it’ll help you think about how to solve the ISIL problem creatively.” It is perhaps for that reason that the abstract paintings included in the collection are rarely random or lacking in content, but are largely constructed from patterns and recognisable shapes.

Robert Newmann, ‘Arrows’, 1968. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Hyperallergic also suggested that the art collection might have been chosen by the CIA in a nod to the agency’s covert support for Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War. The story Dunne refers to, which has been fuelled by sensationalist articles in the New Yorker and the Independent, is yet another oversimplification and mythologisation of a more complex but less glamorous tale linking art and espionage – and further evidence of the will to sustain a narrative of CIA secrecy that provoked both Johanna Barron’s project and the subsequent press coverage.

Yet if the CIA did maintain some secrecy around its art collection, it may have been for good reason. While researching her article, Dunne contacted Robert Newmann, the last living artist featured in the agency’s collection of abstract painting. Newmann revealed that the artists themselves were not informed by Melzac of the loan of their works to the CIA, and Newmann only discovered this fact in 2012, when Warner Brothers requested his permission to feature the painting Arrows in the Hollywood blockbuster Argo, which was filmed on site at Langley. “Personally, I would never have sold a painting to the CIA,” Newmann said. “We [Washington Color School artists] were all left-of-center and the CIA’s contribution to the [Vietnam] War turned all of us off.”

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The Art of Revolutionary Ethiopia

The arrest of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia on 12 September 1974 marked the end of almost a thousand years of rule by the Solomonic dynasty, a royal family claiming descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Haile Selassie’s deposition has been described as the culmination of a “creeping coup”, following a decade of protests against the Emperor, often led by students. While Haile Selassie was a controversial leader, who lived a lavish lifestyle while rural communities were ravaged by famine, he nonetheless achieved messianic status outside of Ethiopia. Since the 1930s, followers of the Jamaican Rastafari movement have honoured him as the Second Coming of Christ.

Art students also played an important role in the creeping coup. In the 1960s, artistic debates in the capital of Addis Ababa mirrored those in the West. While some experimented with abstraction, others believed that representational art was vital to inform and inspire a largely illiterate population. Due to traditional links between Russia and Ethiopia that dated back to the Tsarist period, some Ethiopian art students travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg to train in Socialist Realism. Returning home, they were inspired to use their art for the social good, as the country entered a period of severe famine in the early 1970s, while rumours abounded that the Emperor was preventing starving peasants from entering the major cities, to maintain the illusion of wealth and modernity.

Eshetu Tiruneh, ‘Victims of Famine’, 1974. National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

For his graduation painting at the Fine Arts School in Addis Ababa, Eshetu Tiruneh created a mural that called attention to his destitute countrymen. Based on his sketches of those gathering on the city’s outskirts, Victims of Famine shows emaciated families dressed in rags, supporting children and the elderly, too weak to walk along a barren, dusty road. Other figures in the scene have succumbed to hunger and are mourned by skeletal family members. The painting depicts a relentless move forward, in search of aid that would not appear.

Eshetu Tiruneh’s mural would be widely reproduced and ignite further unrest and fury against the Emperor. Painted in 1974, in the months preceding the coup, it also foreshadowed the broadcast in Addis Ababa of a documentary about the famine by UK journalist Jonathan Dimbleby. The night before Haile Selassie’s arrest, a doctored version of the documentary, juxtaposing scenes of starvation with the Emperor’s ostentatious displays of wealth, finally provoked action to overthrow him.

The aftermath of the coup d’état in Ethiopia followed a similar pattern to many other African, Middle Eastern and Latin American uprisings of the 1960s and ’70s, in response to the pressures of the Cold War, the break down of colonial power and the rise of socialist ideology that advocated rule by the people. The Solomonic dynasty was replaced by a strict military dictatorship known as the Derg. Over the next two decades, the abolition of the feudal system, land reforms and improvements in literacy and education were undermined by the ruthless suppression of suspected dissidents, many thousands of whom were executed without trial.

Getachew Yosef, ‘Revolutionary Motherland or Death’, 1979/1980. National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. Courtesy Kate Cowcher.

After taking control, the Derg recognised the value of revolutionary art and the same artists who had campaigned against the Emperor was called on to create propagandistic images in support of the junta, visually representing the new state’s Marxist ideology. The Derg established a Ministry of Culture, which attempted to impose Socialist Realism on Ethiopian artists, just as this artistic doctrine was in decline in its country of origin. Many Ethiopian artists were trained by the Soviets in the 1970s and ’80s, while also taking cues from Chinese poster art of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, the country’s nascent abstract movement was dismissed as decadent and bourgeois.

British art historian Kate Cowcher has spent the last few years investigating the visual culture of revolutionary Ethiopia, to reveal images as a vital component in political change. You can get a deeper insight into this fascinating period of art in Africa by watching her talk, Land to the Tiller! Art and the Makings of an Ethiopian October, presented in 2014 at Calvert 22 in London.

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Maori Art of the Nuclear Mother

Known as ANZUS, the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty was signed in 1951. This military alliance was one of several entered into by the United States in the early 1950s, as part of its attempts to prevent the international spread of communism and to prepare for the possibility of armed conflict with the Soviet Union.

Some thirty years later, as relations between the United States and New Zealand soured – throwing ANZUS into disarray – this piece of Cold War legislation inspired Māori artist, Emily Karaka, to create a dynamic work of art. In The Treaties, Karaka presents ANZUS as one of a series of treaties entered into by the New Zealand authorities that was to have a profound effect on her community.

Emily Karaka, ‘The Treaties’, 1984. Oil and paper on hessian and wood. Courtesy Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Painted in 1984, this complex work is formed of four panels. Three equal-sized panels on the right each present a limp, abstracted figure, draped over a dark, menacing cross on a gold background, surrounded by Māori text. A panel dedicated to ANZUS sits alongside a central image featuring a figure with a bowed head and outstretched arms, in a classic crucifixion pose, representing the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The 19th-century agreement, between the British Crown and Māori chiefs, marked the foundation of the British colony in New Zealand and has been a recurring theme in Karaka’s paintings.

On the far right, a final cross depicts a figure bent over backwards, with blue text identifying the panel as dedicated to the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977. That year, New Zealand’s Prime Minister joined other Commonwealth leaders in a pact to refrain from staging sporting events in collaboration with apartheid-era South Africa. However, only four years later, New Zealand hosted the South African rugby team, leading to protests and fierce debate about the relationship between sport and politics. The Māori community was equally divided. While some attended the games, others were bitterly disappointed by the Springbok Tour, seeing parallels between racial discrimination in New Zealand and the treatment of the segregated Black community in South Africa. Karaka has noted that while each of the agreements was “meant to protect”, they would cause untold harm – as indicated by the torn, blood-drenched treaties that lie at the base of each crucifix.

 The larger panel on the left side depicts a figure that Karaka has referred to as a “nuclear mother”. Responding in particular to the ANZUS treaty and the heightened risk of atomic warfare in the Pacific, the panel shows that Cold War nuclear anxiety spread to the Antipodes, affecting people from all backgrounds and all corners of the earth. In an interview, Karaka has recalled how the painting was made in response to a vivid dream, the first she’d had in colour, in which she awoke with the feeling of being impregnated by the fear of conflict. The painting shows Karaka’s debt to fellow Māori artists, as well as the influence of Picasso’s Guernica, and her interest in the work of Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock.

Karaka’s concerns were shared by many of her compatriots. In the year that she created The Treaties, the New Zealand government declared a nuclear-free zone in its land, waters and airspace, barring all vehicles carrying nuclear weapons or radioactive waste from entering its territory. The policy, which remains in place to this day, led the United States to suspend New Zealand from ANZUS in 1986, and remains a source of tension between the two countries.

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North Korean Murals, from Namibia to Syria

Espionart previously explored a string of patriotic sculptures built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects, the international division of the North Korean state-run Mansudae Art Studio. This propaganda-for-hire is part of an alliance between North Korea and several African nations that dates from the 1960s, when the secretive Asian regime provided material assistance in their struggles for independence against European colonial powers. Mansudae’s projects have proved controversial, as shown by the riots that accompanied the inauguration in 2010 of the African Renaissance Monument, in Dakar, Senegal. Locals were infuriated by the extravagance of the statue – the tallest in Africa – as well as the sensual design and the Senegalese government’s gift to North Korea of a large portion of state land.

Heroes’ Acre sculpture, Windhoek, Namibia

Another controversial sculpture was erected in 2002 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, as part of a commission for Mansudae Overseas Projects to construct the 732-acre Heroes’ Acre war memorial. The design of the monument and the outsourcing of a multi-million dollar project to North Korea once again enraged locals. Despite that, Mansudae has received further commissions from the Namibian government – including one of the latest of a number of international war memorials and museums built by North Korean artists.

The Namibian War of Independence – also known as the South African Border War – broke out in August 1966. With support from the Soviet Union, China and several sympathetic African nations, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia fought for independence from South Africa until the end of the Cold War. Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa) finally became a republic in 1990, and on its 24th anniversary, in 2014, the Independence Memorial Museum was opened in Windhoek.

Section of panoramic mural, Independence Memorial Museum, Windhoek, Namibia

At the centre of Namibia’s Independence Memorial Museum is a life-size panoramic mural, a visual strategy that tends to dominate Mansudae’s memorial designs. Rather than showing any evidence of a local artistic tradition, the mural is painted as an updated form of Socialist Realism, the artistic style developed in the USSR in the 1930s and that flourished in communist countries throughout the twentieth century. Despite the museum’s focus on independence, the ongoing appeal of Socialist Realism as a form of political propaganda is shown by the Namibian government’s decision to send state money to artists in another country, to produce work in a generic, Westernised style, rather than to give much-needed opportunities to local artists.

Similar designs have been seen more recently in the Angkor Panorama Museum, opened in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2016. Entirely produced by Mansudae Overseas Projects, down to its staffing by North Korean nationals, the museum again contains at its centre a 360-degree mural, which purportedly took 63 artists in Pyongyang almost 2 years to complete. Thus, despite their unsubtle and anachronistic style, North Korea’s memorial murals and museum developments continue to prove lucrative – while demonstrating how Socialist Realist art remains alive and well, and much-loved as a form of propaganda for authoritarian regimes.

Section of panoramic mural, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

Mansudae’s museum projects date to the late 1980s, when North Korean architects were sent to Cairo to develop the 6th of October War Panorama, commemorating the Egyptian and Syrian alliance against Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. North Korea had also contributed militarily to the conflict, sending pilots and fighters jets to engage the Israeli Air Force.

Painting of Hafez al-Assad and Kim Il Sung, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

The Assad regime subsequently commissioned Mansudae Overseas Projects in the late 1990s, to build a second museum presenting an alternative version of the conflict to the usual narrative of an Israeli victory.  The October War Panorama in Damascus features a number of grandiose Socialist Realist paintings depicting the history of Syria, soldiers engaged in battle, and the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, glorified in the classic style of a dictator, flanked by jubilant citizens. The Syrian museum also displays a large painting of Hafez al-Assad alongside North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung – further evidence of the close relationship between the two regimes.

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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.