The stolen kiss: The Berlin Wall mural is erased

Artist shocked as Berlin Wall mural is erased thanks to 20th-anniversary renovation work

The satirical mural depicting Communist dictators Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing on the lips with true Soviet-era ardour is one of the most famous and abiding images on what's left of Berlin's once infamous wall. Yesterday, however, its painter was shocked to discover it had gone.

At the city's East Side Gallery, where scores of arresting murals cover one of the last surviving sections of the wall, there was grey concrete where only days ago the larger-than-life depiction of the former Eastern bloc leaders' smacker stood. It had been a major tourist attraction since it appeared almost 20 years ago, painted by Dmitri Vrubel. The Russian artist said yesterday he was devastated to discover that his picture, called Brotherhood Kiss, had simply disappeared

It emerged that the mural's removal was intentional. It was done as part of an extensive and, it appears, Teutonically thorough renovation project designed to smarten up the remains of the wall in time for the 20th anniversary of its historic fall this November.

Mr Vrubel was not amused. He said he had only been made aware that his mural had gone after receiving a cheque from the gallery offering €3,000 in compensation. He said he had been asked to "come back and paint another one".

The image derives from a photograph of the two leaders taken 1979. As a potent symbol of Communism's corruption and ultimate failure, the image has featured on coffee cups and T-shirts across Europe and beyond. "I have no problem with the East Side Gallery being renovated," Mr Vrubel insisted, "but I can't simply come back and paint the same thing over again, it would be a completely new picture."

However the East Side Gallery, which exhibits the works of some 117 artists from 21 countries on a 1,316 metre section of the wall, was adamant that the painting had to go together with most of the other murals. The gallery's spokesman, Kani Alavi, insisted that the remains of the wall were being rapidly destroyed by the effects of exhaust fumes and rainwater and there was no option but to give the structure a radical overhaul.

"In the old days we used cheap paint," he said pointing out that the Brotherhood Kiss had been in a state of advanced decay and flaking off the wall. "To keep the wall we have to strip it of its murals with hot water and renovate the concrete behind them." He added that the artists were being invited to come back and repaint their works in special weatherproof colours that would ensure they were kept for posterity.

The East Side Gallery recently received lottery funding for its controversial renovation project and the idea has been welcomed by Berlin's tourist board. Christian Tänzler, its spokesman said the plan, however radical, ended years of uncertainty about the gallery's future which had led to its decay. "Every tourist in Berlin wants to see the wall and the East Side Gallery is the longest bit left," he said.

The gallery's plight has highlighted an interminable debate over the remains of the wall. Most of it was removed in 1989 and ground into underlay for new autobahns. A few sections were sold to collectors. More than a decade ago, first tourists and then historians began to notice that an important piece of history had virtually disappeared from the reunified German capital. That prompted a small but faithful reconstruction of a section complete with watchtowers. Mr Vrubel said yesterday that he was now considering repainting the Brotherhood Kiss from a different angle. "Of course it is not a political picture." he said. "It's all about love".