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Monday, July 22, 2019

Victor Arnautoff

An unflinching, unfiltered view of slavery in 19th-century America.
Which is more important, an artist's intentions in creating a work of art or the public perceptions of that work in the following years? This question which has plagued the students staff, and community of George Washington High School in San Francisco now for several generations. The question is couched in terms of intolerance, prejudice, revisionist history, aesthetics, art history, censorship, politics, not to mention educational goals. The artist was a Russian-American muralist named Victor Arnautoff. The work in question is a 1,600-sq-ft, twelve panel art installation exploring the life of the school's namesake, George Washington. The New Deal-era murals, spanning the staircase and lobby, depict Washington in 13 scenes. Depending on whom you ask, the murals are either an unflinching look at American history, a stark depiction of violence against oppressed minorities--or both.
George Washington, Native American fighter and staunch believer in "manifest destiny."
Student comments are posted on the wall below the mural.
You'll not find George Washington with an axe and a downed cherry tree, or his throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Two scenes in particular have generated student complaints for more than 50 years. In one, the statesman stands over a map of a young America while pointing westward; at the end of his arm, four white settlers with rifles rendered in monochrome walk over the full-color body of a deceased Indian whose face is turned away from the viewer (above). At the dead man’s feet, another Native American, wearing a headdress, sits at a campfire and shares a pipe with another armed white man. On the opposite wall, the owner of the plantation at Mount Vernon confers with a white man who gestures at some of Washington’s slave laborers: a barefoot black man shucking corn, three stooped, faceless black women in the far distance picking cotton, and another black man hammering wood for a group of white men manufacturing barrels (below).
George Washington, master of Mount Vernon, and slave owner.
In April, 2019, an ad hoc committee recommended that the artwork be archived and removed. In a statement following the committee decision, the school district responded: “The majority of the group expressed that the main reason to keep the mural up at the school is focused on the legacy of the artist, rather than experience of the students.” Ostensibly, the matter will be decided by the city’s board of education, but because the school was built under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration--a Depression-era federal infrastructure program--the federal General Services Administration could have the final say. Under US law, the GSA owns and curates all WPA-era art in its fine arts collection.

Sprawling over 1,600 square feet on two different levels of the high school, Arnautoff's mural is notoriously hard to photograph.
So, who was this controversial, Russian-born, immigrant artist? Victor Mikhail Arnautoff was born in 1896, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest. He died in Leningrad in 1979. Although showing an early talent in art, during his early life young Arnautoff served as a cavalry officer in the army of Nicholas II during WW I. With the defeat of the Czar's forces, Arnautoff crossed into northeastern China and surrendered his weapons. He remained in China for five years as he again tried to pursue art, signing up for schooling in Harbin. However, he was so impoverished he was obliged to take a position training the cavalry of the warlord Zhang Zuolin. While in China, the would-be artist met and married Lydia Blonsky with whom he had two sons. In November 1925 Arnautoff came to San Francisco on a student visa to study at the California School of Fine Arts. There he studied sculpture and painting becoming active in the city's leftist arts scene. In 1929, Arnautoff and his family continued to Mexico where he became an assistant to the muralist Diego Rivera. In 1931 the family returned to San Francisco where, in 1934 Arnautoff was chosen to paint one of the murals Coit Tower murals. Later he was appointed technical director of the Coit Tower murals project with funding from the Public Works of Art Project. There he is prominently represented by a mural depicting San Francisco city life (below). This mural includes a self-portrait as well as a portrait of his son, Michael.

Victor Arnautoff came to his most famous commission well versed in the art of paint large scale murals.
George Washington high school was built in 1936. The experience of walking into the streamline modern-style building’s main entrance hasn’t changed in 83 years: after pulling open doors watched over by bas-relief sculptures of Edison, Shakespeare and Washington, students climb stairs flanked by the Arnautoff murals. When the frescos were unveiled in June 1936, the San Francisco Chronicle gave its unqualified approval: “Arnautoff goes back to the facts of colonial days, with all their conflict, idealism and fierce reality,” the art critic reported. Arnautoff meant to demythologize Washington. However, a present-day student "art critic" at the school, sees it differently, “The intentions {of the artist} matters, but the way it’s shown reflects poorly. If you looked at it not knowing the history of the work, you just see white people enslaving black people without any of the idea that this was the real history." He favors removing the mural. On the other hand, a previous GWHS graduate, counters that the debate should be about education, not destruction. She suggests a plaque next to each murals which explains its basis in history as well as Arnautoff’s credentials as a major artist. She adds, “What the artist is portraying in the murals are facts.”

George Washington High School (rear view), San Francisco, California.
What worries those wishing to preserve Arnautoff's murals is that the recommendation to archive and remove the artwork could be used as a template for addressing other controversial art. Thus, all New Deal murals would be vulnerable, starting with a series across town at Mission High School which includes Spanish missionaries teaching “neophyte Indians”, according to the title of one installation. They reason that if the George Washington murals can be destroyed, then no work of art that anyone finds offensive is going to be safe. And that’s an awful lot of art.

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