Picasso Y-Block Controversy: Why the Art World Is Rallying to Save Two Murals in Norway

Picasso Y-Block Controversy: Why the Art World Is Rallying to Save Two Murals in Norway

Over the past few months, curators, activists, and historians have closely watched the demolition of the Y-Block, a building in Oslo. Though hardly a well-known structure beyond the confines of Norway, the Y-Block has become a structure of interest in the art world because it contains two murals by Pablo Picasso and Carl Nesjar that are key in both of their oeuvres. Produced over a 10-year span, the murals could be forever changed when they are separated from the building they have long called home.

The murals have their roots in the year 1956, when Picasso and Nesjar first met. The pairing was not an obvious one. Picasso was a celebrated modernist known for pushing the limits of how the human form could be represented; Nesjar, by contrast, was lesser-known, and mainly inclined toward low-key sculptures made from concrete. But the two found discovered a shared affection for Brutalist design, and Nesjar was ultimately tasked with translating Picasso’s drawings into monumental, three-dimensional concrete forms. At the height of their collaboration, Nesjar was called Picasso’s “right arm,” and wound up functioning as the artist’s confidant. “I must be the only person in the world who has corrected a Picasso drawing,” he said in 1968.

By the time Picasso died in 1973, the two had worked together to realize more than 30 monumental site-specific concrete murals and sculptures worldwide. “Jacqueline,” a series of towering monuments to Picasso’s wife, are installed on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; the Vondelpark in Amsterdam; and in Helsingborg, a town in southern Sweden, among other locations. Bust of Sylvette, a 36-foot-tall sandblasted sculpture of Picasso’s beloved model, Sylvette David, was installed in the courtyard of Silver Towers, a high-rise apartment complex in New York designed by architect I. M. Pei, in 1968. (A single mock-up, signed “Bon à tirer pour Nesjar. Picasso,” served as that project’s contract.) In 2008, Bust of Sylvette was declared a New York City landmark. 

Their first collaboration, five concrete murals designed for Oslo’s Regjeringskvartalet complex—the city’s governmental quarters—was the only to become a matter of international controversy, however. In 2011, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb near the complex’s Y-Block, a structure named for its shape as seen from the sky. Eight people were killed in the explosion, and later that day, Breivik murdered 69 more—most of them teenagers—on Utoya island outside Oslo. For many Norwegians, the Y-Block, which was left standing but has been kept deserted since the events of 2011, became to some inextricable from the worst atrocity committed in the nation during peacetime. 

Intentions to demolish the Y-Block were announced in 2014, and in 2017 Oslo officials formalized plans to redevelop the entire Regjeringskvartalet complex in a sleek, glass-encased design. Proponents of the demolition argued that its location atop a vehicle tunnel proved an insurmountable security risk. The Y-Block would be deconstructed, while the nearby H-Block, which houses three small Picasso murals, would be restored.

Preservationists, politicians, and art-world figures decried the destruction of the Y-Block, which dates to 1968 and is considered a masterpiece of Scandanvian minimalism. Advocates for keeping the Y-Block put forward difficult questions: Wasn’t destroying the structure a fulfillment of Breivik’s anti-democracy mission? Two murals by Picasso and Nesjar—Fisherman on its facade, and The Seagull in its lobby—decorate the Y-Block, and therefore make the building art historically important. Would become of these works?

Early reports about the demolition stoked fear—they mentioned workers untrained in preservation, who some believed would crack the delicate murals while drilling. An international uproar followed. Demonstrators, clad in stripes meant to recall Picasso’s famed Breton shirts, crowded in front of Fisherman. Their protests began to same futile at a pint. A motion by an opposition party in Norway’s Parliament aimed to reverse the demolition plan; the motion failed. A petition to save the building amassed nearly fifty thousand signatures, and curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art released an letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway pleading for the preservation of the structure: “The demolition of the building complex would not only constitute a significant loss of Norwegian architectural heritage, but it would also render any attempt to salvage or reposition Picasso’s site-specific murals elsewhere unfortunate.” 

Despite divided public opinion, in June 2019, a crane lowered Fishermen onto two trucks en route to storage. The Seagull soon followed. Both are to be reinstalled in the new complex, which is slated to complete construction in 2025. 

Nesjar’s daughter, Gro Nesjar Greve, and the grandson of Y-Block’s architect Erling Viksjø jointly filed a lawsuit against its relocation. In an interview with the Art Newspaper, Greve said, “Under Norwegian law, the Y Block murals are considered a co-authored art work by Picasso and my father and the architect Viksjø [so] we do have what are called ‘moral rights’, as long as we can prove that the murals are a collaboration—that my father was not just a fabricator for Picasso but part of the artistic process.”

Curators and activists have largely fixated on the murals co-authored by Picasso, but those works are only one facet of the art history that is being forever altered by the building’s demolition—there’s architecture history at stake, too. Viksjø and engineer Sverre Jystad designed the Y-Block using “Naturbetong”, or “natural concrete,” an experimental casting technique based on an aggregate of aluminum and silicon metal, which created a tactile surface receptive to sandblasting. Nesjar’s technique, called “Betograve,” entailed pouring concrete over a form—in this case, Picasso’s designs—tightly packed with gravel. The concrete was then sand-blasted with a high-pressure hose, exposing the gravel beneath. The final product was a singularity for the time and place: Brutalist architecture married with modernist figuration.

Nesjar knew early on that his and Picasso’s murals would enhance a building that was significant in its own right. “In Scandinavia, there is great excitement about spreading culture for the masses, but not East European style,” Nesjar told the New York Times. “When I showed Picasso photos of the concrete art I was working on in Oslo, he got very enthusiastic. He leapt to his feet and ran to show it to the maid.”


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