What the Permanent 5 Can Learn From the Painting That Hangs Above Them

Copyright United Nations.
Copyright United Nations.

Note: I conducted research for this article in 2015 for an art history class at Yale-NUS College, and originally published this article version of my research on Fox & Hedgehog.

On the east wall of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) chamber hangs an enormous painting that all will recognise and yet be able to say almost nothing about. It is a grand backdrop, but little more, to the grander discussions occurring at the table before it.

The story behind this painting, its artist, and its present context is a complex one that highlights the tensions between the Security Council’s aspirations and its conflicted past; it is an important reminder to the Council that radical changes are sometimes needed, not just superficial adjustments. As I’ll explain, Per Krohg, the artist, made precisely this mistake when he reused work he had completed during the Nazi occupation of Norway as the centrepiece of his UNSC work, completed in 1950. Both Krohg’s painting and the P5 are remnants of the war, and risk failing precisely because, out of fear or misunderstanding, they refuse to reinvent themselves for the times we now live in.

Per Krohg’s painting is some five by nine metres, and is divided horizontally; the lower-third is executed in dark colours, the upper two-thirds much lighter with UN-white and blue motifs. Colour alone gives much of the work’s message: the lighter colours suggest peace, progress and truth, while the darker colours depict a hellish landscape. “Symbolising”, the UNSC tells us, “the promise of future peace and individual freedom”, the work shows a phoenix rising from a dark landscape into a light-filled world of progress. Though complex, with many panels depicting separate scenes, the painting’s overall message is simple: technology, justice and truth, united by the nuclear family and the UN-led world order, are forces that progress humanity.

Despite its initial simplicity and message, the iconography of this painting becomes deeply troubling the more it is observed. It is clearly a propagandistic image in favour of the UN-led order, but only a thin film separates it from being a troubling and conflicted remnant of war, and a symbol of what the UN has or could become. Created to represent the lofty goals of the world’s most inclusive and progressive organisation, the painting in fact depicts the opposite. It is so deeply rooted in the Second World War, with all of that period’s problems, that Gregory Maertz, an art historian specialising in the Third Reich at St. John’s University, even told me that Krohg’s painting “could easily function as nazi propaganda on behalf of national socialist eugenic (later eliminatory) ideology”. For instance, it is caucasian men and women who pull chained, black figures out of the hellish lower-third of the painting; it is caucasian figures who look through telescopes and microscopes in the upper-right of the image, and the same figures who weigh gold in the upper-left. And, of course, the centrepiece of the image is a caucasian nuclear family surrounded by Biblical iconography. These were the figures and motifs ever-present at Nazi art exhibitions throughout the Third Reich, in Munich, Oslo and Vienna, for instance.

It is the centrepiece of this painting that says the most about the painting as a whole, and, perhaps, the state of the Security Council today. What seems to be unrecognised or even unknown in the scholarship about Krohg’s painting is that the centre panel, depicting the nuclear family, is not original. In fact, the panel is almost identical to a painting that Krohg completed in 1940, at the start of the Nazi occupation of Norway. This other work, titled Peace, the Artist and His Family, is a forlorn painting, the man and woman at the centre of it both with downcast gazes, and even the children surrounding them looking melancholy. It can be read as Krohg’s reaction to the occupation, and the knowledge that he might be separated from his family. In the version Krohg produced for the centrepiece of the UNSC painting, the only changes made are that the figures have much lighter skin and hair, have subtle smiles, and the man and woman now have linked arms.

Per Krohg was an artist who was invited to paint a monumental work for the world’s most important room; he was tasked with encapsulating the notion of peace in a single image. But for Krohg, who had lived through the Nazi occupation, and even been imprisoned for a year by the Nazis, peace seemed only to function in relation to war. The same can be said of the Security Council today, a body whose permanent members remain because of the role they played in the Second World War; the P5 reflects global power in 1945, not global power today.

For Krohg, the United Nations was a promise of avoiding the preceding decade that he had lived through. The problem with reusing his own work from 1940 is not so much self-plagiarism as forever tying the Security Council chamber to a very specific war, and its very specific problems. The Security Council itself functions in the same way. By mooring itself, through permanent membership and the veto power, to a specific war and very distinct problems, the Security Council risks becoming a body that no longer has the power to inspire peace, just as Krohg’s mural today is more problematic than it is inspiring. Reforming the Security Council by expanding permanent membership to reflect present global power would be an immediate way for the Council to un-stick itself from the remnants of war.

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In 2013 the United Nations completed extensive restoration of the Security Council chamber which had been ongoing for seven years at a cost of USD$1billion. If there was ever a time to update the physical Council chamber—or even Council permanent membership—to reflect the times in which it now operates, that would seem to have been it. When asked by a magazine about the changes made to the Security Council chamber, Michael Adlerstein, the assistant secretary-general in charge of the project, responded: “We didn’t change very much. The Americans and the Russians and the Chinese are all extremely nervous about Security Council reform and the slippery slope—‘If you change this, where is that going to lead us?’” He went on: “Whether it works for the world is a matter of opinion, but it works for the five permanent members, so there’s a great deal of reluctance to change anything.”

The image of the family, and the other tropes so prevalent in his painting, clearly worked for Per Lasson Krohg. Whether they work for the world is a matter of opinion. But the irony is that the permanent members of the Security Council are watched over by a painting that is meant to remind them of their role in maintaining and advancing peace in the post-war world, and instead should remind them of the dangers of being stuck in the past. The latter is the immediate lesson they should pay attention to, or else the former may become impossible.


If a Goldfish Could Remember

During my final teenage years I held and could not shake the idea that goldfish were a supremely lucky species. Goldfish lived, forgot, kept on living and forgot again, their memories famously said to last just three seconds. We humans are destined to remember forever: an indiscretion lasts a lifetime. We are, in other words, goldfish that can remember.

Not that my indiscretions were great, or that I really have any to recall at all. But it was nonetheless precisely this fear of mistakes, of regrets, that defined my decisions from ages eighteen to twenty. I think it was literature that did it to me. Literature and, perhaps, my knowledge that the lessons from literature were likely to be compounded in a world where collective memories are stored online.

Milan Kundera wrote, of a subtly different but somehow similar idea, that “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions”.

For Kundera, humans should feel lightness in making decisions because there is no way we can determine good or bad decisions. Yet we must decide, and should therefore feel lightness about any ramifications of a decision we could not avoid. For those he disagrees with, we would feel unbearable weight because in every moment we make decisions that we must suffer the consequences of. I’ve always thought that Kundera sees humans as helpless in the face of grand decisions, and therefore paradoxically able to throw off any chains and burdens; most of us, however, see humans as culpable for decisions, and therefore prone to the feeling of weight.

But it seems to me that Kundera more closely describes goldfish than humans. Goldfish live one life, but are unable to learn within it; each three-second block is lived in a form of the dictum that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With no memory there is indeed the impossibility of culpability for actions; mistakes and bad decisions will be repeated endlessly, and one can hardly assign any blame or fault to the goldfish. It is true that humans live but one life; but unlike the goldfishes’ life, a human’s can be improved based on past experiences.

A goldfish that can remember is a goldfish that makes a mistake and can resolve not to repeat it. A goldfish that can remember is one that is culpable for its actions. It still lives just one life, yet that life can be changed, improved, bettered through its course.

A goldfish that can remember can legitimately make a mistake once and claim innocence. But beyond that, a feeling of weight is appropriate: the feeling that weighs on our throats, just below our adams-apple, when we must make a decision the consequences of which we have previously seen. It is this weight that encourages learning, changing course, improving.

A goldfish that can remember is one that disavows previously held views when new facts or ideas come to light. Consistency is a virtue only for the goldfish with a three-second memory—consistency in what is practically insanity. Flexibility in light of new learning is the virtue of the goldfish that can remember.

I begin my third decade somewhat sorry for the simple goldfish, and thankful for being a goldfish that can remember. I am less afraid of saying and doing what I think and believe, where previously I lived in fear of saying or doing something I might later disagree with. I feel lightness because I can learn from mistakes; I can act and learn, then decide whether to repeat the action or not. The weight of consequence allows the lightness that comes from an ability to learn and to change course. The goldfish whom I so fervently admired now seems a poor fellow; the lightness of innocence is, in the end, the greatest of burdens.