When WTO is pleased by ILO Working | August 2013

By Joëlle Kuntz

August 2013


Trade and Labour go hand in hand again. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has feelings of renewed ownership with the legacy of decorative arts it inherited when moving its Headquarters at 154, rue de Lausanne - a building conceived in 1927 by Vaudois architect Georges Epitaux, as home to the International Labour Organization (ILO). This was the first building of the League of Nations system in Geneva, and a "Palace of Labour" adorned with innumerable donations of Trade Unions and Governments who entrusted ILO with its mandate. Artists came from all continents and donated their work to honour the labour of man, in the realist then symbolic styles of the 1930's to 1950's. When it moved to route des Morillons in 1975, the ILO took with them whatever could be moved; sculptures and frescoes remained at rue de Lausanne.

Heads of the GATT, when they moved in, were not pleased with the atmosphere. They thought workers' fate had nothing to do with business. The works of art were concealed behind shameful wooden fences, and forgotten.

But when WTO was authorized to expand within its current complex, it was decided to uncover them. For what is trade, if not circulation of merchandise produced by labour and ingenuity?

Restorations of murals by Dean Cornwell, a major American illustrator, are being finalized. An allegory donated by the American Federation of Trade Unions (AFL-CIO), these murals depict Labour in the New World defeating Slavery and Constraint in the Old World. Other works sharing the same spirit are to be seen, such as French-Swiss artist Gustave-Louis Jaulmes' "In Universal Joy"; "Labour in Bounty"; "Benefits of Leisure"; and "Prevailing Peace".

The grand Staircase is adorned by works by Frenchman Maurice Denis, where Catholic inspiration is visible ("Dignity of Labour") or Sean Keating, of more Positivist inspiration ("Irish Industrial Development"). They were spared the fate of other masterpieces upon intervention of the State of Geneva. Here they are again, doing what they were thought for: giving inspiration to a building where, as poet Paul Budry stated during inauguration day, "peoples finally fraternise thanks to the one gesture that makes them equals and brethren: labour." 


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