A spectre is haunting Winnipeg - the spectre of Karl Marx's beard.
When inner-city business owners decided to unite against the scourge of graffiti, they thought they had nothing to lose but its stain.
But a summer painting project went awry when a figure in a mural depicting Eastern European immigrants in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike took on a startling resemblance to the father of communism.
The director of the West End Business Improvement Zone forced the artist to change the mural after receiving complaints from local citizens, setting up a dialectical struggle between the interests of art and commerce.
Yesterday, with the face of the man once thought to be Marx crudely obscured by splotches of white paint, 21-year-old artist and university student Kelsey Shwetz struggled to find a synthesis that would allow her to keep her job and finish the painting. She would neither confirm nor deny that the man in the mural was supposed to be Marx, nor would she say whether she resisted her patron's injunction.
"People have referred to it as the Marx mural. I never have. That wasn't my intention. I wanted to do a mural describing the social progress of Eastern Europeans at that time," Ms. Shwetz said.
She smiled, her eyes hidden behind gold-rimmed Ray Bans, with iPod headphones dangling from her ears.
"I enjoy that people are thinking about my work," she said. "I would never say my intent was to create controversy."
Ms. Shwetz's struggle echoes the battle over Mexican painter Diego Rivera's mural Man at the Crossroads, commissioned for the lobby of the RCA building at Rockefeller Center in New York in 1933. The piece included a scene of a workers' demonstration, with Vladimir Lenin at its centre. The Rockefellers objected to Lenin's presence and asked that his image be replaced with that of an unknown man. They couldn't reach an agreement and the mural had to be destroyed.
Once it's complete, Ms. Shwetz's mural will now include a generalized figure of a European male, as well as a crowd scene from the general strike, an image of an onion-domed Ukrainian Orthodox church, a wheat field, and Tatlin's tower, a never-built architectural monument to the promise of socialism in the Soviet Union.
The roughly 2.5 by 3.5-metre painting is being done in acrylic on plywood. It adorns the side of a shop that sells public auto insurance, one of the most visible legacies of Manitoba's long history of social democratic governments, which sprang at least in part from the labour radicalism of 1919.
That juxtaposition was pointed out on a Winnipeg blog, the Rise and Sprawl, which took a critical view of the mural since Marx, unlike Communist city councillor Joe Zuken or socialist CCF leader J.S. Woodsworth, has no clear connection to Winnipeg. The blog post also described the mural as being within sight of the new Manitoba Hydro office tower, and down the street from a provincially owned liquor store.
"Comrade Marx would be proud that these 'valuable services' have been taken out of the hands of individuals (who are too feeble to own their own liquor store, or choose what car insurance they want) and put into the hands of the people," the blogger wrote.
"Or maybe Marx's image was placed there to remind so many aging West Enders why they fled to Canada from Europe in the first place."
The executive director of the West End BIZ, Gloria Cardwell-Hoeppner, did not return calls yesterday.
A group has been created on the Facebook social networking site to protest against the change to the mural. Its mission statement describes the work as a "challenging evocation of Winnipeg's history with socialism," and decries the interference with Ms. Shwetz's artistic freedom.
"It is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with Winnipeg's public art initiatives," the group's creator wrote. "If the city is so easily intimidated into erasing progressive, controversial art, then we Winnipeggers are doomed to never escape this rut of mediocrity."