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Cooper Union accused of censorship as Stalin banner is removed

The controversial image was removed after protests from local community, many of whom were Ukrainian

Half a century after its appearance in a Parisian newspaper created an uproar among France’s Communist faithful, an unusual Picasso portrait of Josef Stalin has again sparked controversy—this time in the form of an enormous banner that was draped briefly over the façade of the Cooper Union art school in New York, only to be taken down amid accusations of censorship.

The centrepiece of a show by Norwegian artist Lene Berg titled “Stalin by Picasso, or Portrait of Woman with Mustache”, the 52ft by 38ft banner featured an image of Berg holding a reproduction of the portrait in front of her face; flanking it were two smaller banners with photographs of Stalin and Picasso.

The dramatic gesture—which the artist says was intended to explore modes of political representation and propaganda—immediately met furious opposition from the school’s neighbouring Ukrainian community when it was unfurled on 29 October, only days before the 75th anniversary of the Ukrainian genocide ordered by the Russian dictator.

Andrij Dobriansky, a choirmaster at the nearby St George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, who set up a web page called “Stalin Go Home” in protest, said the timing of the show was particularly insulting to many in the area. “There are still people in their 80s living here who lived through that horrible period and would have to walk by the banner,” he said. “It’s like having a large swastika or burning crosses.”

According to Dobriansky, people in the neighbourhood reacted by calling their political representatives and meeting with Cooper Union officials to complain. Two days after the show opened, the banner was removed.

When Berg learned about the removal she closed the show, which featured, among other elements, a video recounting the history of the lost 1953 Picasso portrait that had been commissioned for the cover of Les Lettres Françaises.

The 43-year-old artist says that while she was aware of the Ukrainian community in the area, she was “not at all aware” of the anniversary of the genocide, in which millions were killed by forced starvation. Berg says her only “intent of provocation” was to underline the tenuous link between “the great artist Picasso and the great dictator Josef Stalin. I think it’s clearly not meant as an insult to anyone except someone who’s very fond of Stalin,” she says.

Berg’s show has created controversy before. Earlier this year, an attempt to display the banner at the People’s Theater in Oslo was derailed by objections from the secretary of Norway’s Labor Party, Martin Kolberg, fuelling angry newspaper headlines. When Berg then tried to install the show in Bergen she was similarly thwarted.

According to Cooper Union spokeswoman Jolene Travis, who says the school knew about the show’s history in Norway, the banner was taken down not because of complaints but because the city’s Department of Buildings said it violated safety codes. “They said take it down, and we did,” she says.

But Berg believes the school caved in to political pressure. “I think we could have dealt with that without taking the banners down,” she says, adding, “I’m hoping that someone else will offer me an interesting space for them. But I’m also going to move on to other projects.”

Meanwhile, the New York Civil Liberties Union is investigating whether the Buildings Department was motivated to check for violations because of pressure from the Ukrainian community, a political consideration that could possibly constitute a first-amendment rights violation.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Art school accused of censorship"