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. Now, its painter is shocked to discover it has 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 the larger-than-life depiction of the former Eastern bloc leaders' smacker stood. It had been a major tourist attraction for almost 20 years.

The Russian artist, Dmitri Vrubel, said he was devastated to discover his picture, Brotherhood Kiss, had simply disappeared

The mural's removal was part of an extensive and, it appears, Teutonically thorough renovation project designed to smarten up the remains of the wall for the 20th anniversary of its historic fall this November.

Vrubel was not amused. He said he had only been made aware his mural had gone after receiving a cheque from the gallery offering 3000 ($7001) in compensation. He had been asked to "come back and paint another one".

The image derives from a photograph of the two leaders taken in 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," 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 1316m 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 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 said the artists were being invited to repaint their works in special weatherproof colours.

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 Tnzler, 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.

Most of the wall was removed in 1989 and ground into underlay for new autobahns. A few sections were sold to collectors. More than a decade ago tourists and then historians began to notice that an important piece of history had virtually disappeared from the reunified capital, prompting a small but faithful reconstruction of a section complete with watchtowers.

Vrubel said he was considering repainting the Brotherhood Kiss from a different angle. "Of course it is not a political picture." he said. "It's all about love".

- INDEPENDENT