Kiss of Death: Officials Erase Historic Berlin Wall Mural

By Malte GŲbel

One of the most famous paintings on the Berlin Wall, depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Erich Honecker, has been destroyed by the authorities. The artist is fuming, but he says he will paint a new image.

It was an image that went around the world. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev leaning in to kiss his East German counterpart Erich Honecker, a larger-than-life painting daubed onto a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Before long it became one of the most famous pictures on Berlin's East Side Gallery, the mural bedecked Wall which is now Berlin's longest remaining stretch of the former frontier of the Cold War.

But then, without warning, the image was removed, leaving an old slab of grey concrete - and an irate artist. "My picture is ruined!" raged 48-year-old Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel.

He painted the picture in 1990, just months after the Wall was officially declared open. Alongside Vrubel, 117 artists from 21 countries painted the 1316-meter-long section which runs parallel to the Spree River. Just days after the East Side Gallery was opened on Sept. 28, 1990, the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist.

The open-air concrete canvases have since developed into a tourist attraction and the whole stretch has been protected by a preservation order since 1993.

But time has taken its toll. Running alongside a major traffic route in the southeast of the city, the Wall is exposed to weather and fumes. Tourists have added their own graffiti, or have chiselled off a lump of the historic concrete as a keepsake. Now the paint is flaking. Back in 1990, Brezhnev and Honecker still had rosy cheeks but over time they grew pallid and worn.

"We only worked with cheap paints in those days," said artist Kani Alavi, who also worked on the East Side Gallery. Today he is head of the East Side Gallery artists' group which oversees the preservation of the paintings. Last October he scored a major success by scoring funding from the German lottery and other public funds to restore the gallery to its former glory.

But it has turned out to be less of a renovation and more of a complete overhaul. "Everything has to go," said Alavi. In order to preserve the Wall, all the remaining art works are to be removed using steam. The underlying concrete will then be restored and, finally, the original painters have to come and repaint their section of the Wall. "This time we will use special paints," said Alavi, "so that it lasts longer." A special varnish will then be applied to facilitate the removal of any graffiti.

But Dmitri Vrubel, who never agreed to his artwork being destroyed, is not happy with this explanation. "I've got no problem with a restoration," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But now it will be a new picture. I can't simply repeat my first painting."

The Russian painter first heard about the renovation from a newspaper report. After contacting officials in Berlin he was sent an agreement, entitling him to expenses of €3,000 euros. "But why €3,000 euros? Why not 30,000 or 300?" asked Vrubel, who has seen his image put to commercial use adorning mugs, postcards and plates in Berlin. "It is being sold, but I have never seen a cent of the profits."

Alavi of the artists initiative confirms that problems persist today with the marketing of the East Side Gallery. "Under German law, art that is created in a public space does not enjoy copyright protection. But he says his group may go to court in order to raise public awareness of that problem.

Tourist Magnet

Christian Tšnzler, of Berlin's Tourist Board, describes the East Side Gallery as a magnet for travelers. "All visitors to Berlin want to see the Wall, and the East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Tšnzler is pleased that the world's biggest open-air gallery will finally be restored. Now many of the paintings are internationally famous, including Vrubel's "Brothers' Kiss" and Birgit Kinder's painting of a trabant car, an icon of the former communist East Germany, smashing through the wall.

Alavi and the artist group would like to build an East Side Gallery information center. More than just a museum, they say, it would also be a teaching center -- a place where international artists can meet and focus on the histories of divided countries and walls, real and imaginary.

Meanwhile, the area surrounding the East Side Gallery is in the throes of upheaval. Down the road a massive new arena has been built the city's biggest concert venue. And plans have already been drawn up to give the run-down area a facelift, turning it into a swish "Media Spree" residential and commercial development. That's another reason to invest in the restoration of the Wall. After all, surely a worn down concrete barrier has no place in a modern cityscape.

Renovation of the East Side Gallery is expected to be completed by Nov. 9, 2009, the day marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Dmitri Vrubel, meanwhile, said he doesn't want to disrupt the effort. Instead he's considering paiting a new kissing scene. Obama and Putin maybe? "No that would be too contemporary," he said. Instead Brezhnev and Honecker's embrace will remain the motif, but he may give it a different perspective. "This wasn't actually intended as a political image," said Vrubel. "It's about love."

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