In 1953, Pablo Picasso was commissioned by Louis Aragon, editor for the French communist weekly newspaper, Les Lettres Francaises to commemorate the death of Russian Communist leader Joseph Stalin. Picasso reluctantly took the assignment at the urging of his mistress Francoise GIlot, who insisted he take the opportunity to work with Aragon.
The sketch Picasso delivered to Aragon was a characterization done in his reductive, modernist style. Aragon eagerly published the portrait, but what happened next was a surprise to both parties. Offended by Picasso’s use of an exaggerated moustache and insidiously feminine features. Aragon was besieged by a flurry of letters and verbal complaints. Both the artist and the editor found themselves at the center of a controversy that was raging out of control.
Despite the editor’s profuse apology to the communist community, the outcry was not as easily silenced. Readers questioned whether Picasso was or was not honoring Stalin’s memory. They wondered if Picasso’s rendition of Stalin as if he were “in drag” was a cynical portrayal meant to mock this powerful leader. Due to overwhelming complaints from the membership both Picasso and Aragon French communist members were eventually expelled.
The use of Stalin’s image became the center of another artistic controversy in the fall of 2008, when Norwegian artist Lene Berg installed three flag banners—one, a monumental reproduction of Picasso’s portrait, flanked by small-scale of black and white photographs of Picasso and Stalin that functioned as architectural pillars on the front facade of the Cooper Union foundation building in New York City. The exhibition was titled, “Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of a Women with Moustache.”
The exhibition installation included two video’s and two books derived from vintage publication materials on the cultural and political climate of the cold war as well as the current international political climate. Narrated by Berg the video’s explored the paradoxes of politics. Cutout images and news clippings replayed out past events. The interactive book’s, constructed with pockets that held portraits and transcribed letters and news clippings.
But five days into the installation, the banners were taken down, with no notice or explanation offered to Berg or to Sara Reisman, associate dean of Cooper Union’s School of Art and curator of the exhibition. The school eventually issued an explanation, which cited a lack of city building permits, as well as complaints from the local Ukrainian-American community. Unknown to Berg, the exhibition coincided with the 75th anniversary of the 1930s Holodomor incident, in which Stalin’s regimen caused a famine that devastated the Russian Ukrainian population.
Berg could have questioned if the angry response from the Ukrainian community ironically echoed the voice of Stalin’s harsh censorship of speech and creative freedom? In her own protest, Lene Berg insisted that the interior components of her exhibition, including the videos and two handmade books, be closed. She also launched her own campaign through the NYCLU(New York Civil Liberties Union). In a prepared statement Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director, suggested that, “society’s response to offensive speech is criticism and information, and not censorship.” At the urging of friends and other artist’s Berg used the local press and blog platforms to champion her own rights to creative freedom. A series of articles in the New York Times questioned the city’s building department policies, as well as the Cooper Union position, while blogs debated over the local community’s lack of understanding of artistic freedom. The discussion included previous government and art institutions disagreements including the Brooklyn Museum, over the content of the “Sensation” exhibition, in which artist Chris Ofili’s use of dung in his painting of the Virgin Mary—prompted the museum to post guards and rope off his work. Then Mayor Guillani issued threats against the institution to withdraw city funding. Other incidents discussed included the city parks department closing down a Brooklyn College MFA exhibition at Cadman Plaza due to community complaints of its sexually suggestive content. In her final statement through NYCLU, Berg stated, “What is important to me now is that the installation is down and is that there is a public discussion on what happened and why.” She went on to state, “It’s deeply troubling that freedom of expression was so quickly abandoned, but my hope is that this controversy will force people to continue the discussion about the power of politics and representation. No authority or institution should silence free speech or censor art.”
The issue of censorship and an artist’s first amendment rights to freedom of speech and artistic expression should never cease. As city or university museums continue to show artists whose work focuses on timely social and political issues, we must encourage government to protect their rights.