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Socialist realism comes to light at WTO after 30 years PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 30 March 2008

It started when a former employee of the International Labour Organisation spoke fondly of photographs taken of her with her husband in front of huge murals in the ILO’s former building, reports AFP.

It ended with the discovery by the current occupant of the building, the World Trade Organisation, of several art nouveau and socialist-realism style art pieces which had been hidden from view for more than 30 years by plaster and wood boards.

“You can imagine our emotions when we removed the plaster and the boards which were also nailed to the tiles,” said Victor do Prado, the deputy head of cabinet in the office of the WTO director general.

After some knocking and hacking, the WTO uncovered several paintings and murals dating back to the early half of the 20th century. Most depicted the labour movement theme, as they were meant to grace the wall of the ILO which had occupied the building between 1926-1975.

One such mural, “The Dignity of Work” by French painter Maurice Denis, for instance, shows Jesus preaching to a group of trade unionists. Such pieces did not find favour with the WTO’s predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which took over the building in 1977.

“It’s a bit as if you took over from immigrants in a social housing development,” quipped WTO director general Pascal Lamy. GATT promptly boarded up the paintings with boards and plaster, behind which they remained for three decades. But that did not mask the memory of the paintings of some former ILO employees.

Thanks to one such employee, on May 31, 2007 three massive murals by Swiss Gustave-Louis Jaulmes dating from 1940 were found.

Since restored, the depictions of women and children in colour evoke “Universal Joy,” “Work in Abundance” and “The Benefits of Leisure”. A fourth mural called “Triumphant Peace” is missing, possibly removed when the cateteria’s bar was extended in the early 1960s. The discovery of these pieces is viewed as a boon by the WTO chief, who is a member of the French Socialist Party, and who has always championed the harnessing of globalisation for workers’ benefits.

“There are only advantages in returning to a time in history when the people wanted to create an international system which prevents the repeat of a traumatic situation such as the first world war which they came out of,” Lamy said.

The re-emergence of the paintings is not just a feast for the eyes for the more liberal of the 151 state members of the WTO. At the entrance, a Delft ceramic panel, a 1926 gift of the Amsterdam- based International Federation of Trade Unions, reproduces in four languages the Treaty of Versailles and includes phrases on the honour and dignity of labour.

“You need to be rather daring to put this up at the WTO, it reminds one of the social clause,” said do Prado, referring to a contentious proposal to include references to social issues in the WTO’s charter, which was dropped after objections by the United States among others.

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