Monday, August 12, 2019

The Texas Connection to the George Washington High Mural Controversy

Robert Boyd

Over the past few months, there has been a simmering controversy over a series of murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco. The murals, painted as frescos in 1936 by Victor Arnautoff for the WPA, depict the life of George Washington. The controversy stems from scenes depicting Washington as a slave owner and a scene where Washington is pointing to the West where ghostly grey settlers are migrating--stepping over the dead body of a native American.


Victor Arnautoff, fresco panel, 1936

These images have been controversial since the 60s. The San Francisco school board convened a panel to decide what to do about the murals and in February, they issued the following statement:
“We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.”
The school district budgeted $600.00 to paint over it. (It sounds extremely expensive, but apparently part of that was to cover the cost of anticipated lawsuits.) Not surprisingly, this has caused an uproar. As of two days ago, the SFISD board had reversed itself, planning instead to cover the murals (in some way that doesn't permanently destroy them) after digitizing them so that scholars could still study them.

The artist who created the murals, Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979), is an interesting figure. He was born in the Ukraine and fought with the Whites during the Russian Civil War. After the Whites lost, he fled to China where he lived for several years. In 1925, he arrived in San Francisco to study art. After his student visa expired, he and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera. He moved back to San Francisco in the early 30s, and was just in time to participate in Works Progress Administration art projects. As an experienced muralist, he was just what the WPA was looking for. Despite his background as a White soldier in Russia, he was a left-winger in the USA, and his murals often sided with the working class. Diego Rivera apparently influenced him in this regard, and he eventually joined the Communist Party.

He became an art professor and taught at Stanford for the rest of his career in the U.S. After the death of his wife in 1961, he retired from Stanford and returned to Ukraine. He worked as an artist in the Soviet Union and died in Leningrad in 1979.

One can guess that the reason he depicted slaves and a dead native was not to glorify slavery or genocide, but to depict these facts that were often overlooked in American history. In this way, the mural seems the opposite of, say, Confederate monuments. The latter were designed to glorify, whereas I would interpret the dead native American as critical. But now these images are quite painful to many people.

And because they are frescos, they can't be easily moved. Hence the solution proposed--to cover them up.

Arnautoff did two murals in Texas for the WPA. They were post office murals. One was in College Station and one was in Linden. The College Station mural is presumed destroyed during building renovations in 1962.


Victor Arnautoff, College Station post office mural, oil on canvas, 1938 (presumed destroyed)


Victor Arnautoff, Linden post office mural, oil on canvas, 1939

As far as I can tell, the Linden mural is still there and in good condition. And by showing the back-breaking labor of African Americans, I think Arnautoff is siding with them.  (When I saw these two images by Arnautoff, I thought of the work of Kaneem Smith, whose work often features references to and depictions of those long cotton bags used by sharecroppers to pick cotton.)

On one hand, the intent of the artist here was clearly not to celebrate slavery or the genocide of the native Americans. It was, I think, to point out the fact that the "Father of our Country" owned humans and that the settlement of the west was accomplished at shocking human cost--facts that weren't usually included in whitewashed versions of American History in Arnautoff's day. (Indeed, if you look at other WPA post office murals in Texas, they offer mostly an anodyne view of Texas history, as one might expect. But Arnautoff shows African Americans working under difficult conditions.) And in this, they seem the exact opposite of the Confederate statues that were erected by subsequent generations of Confederate apologists to honor the "lost cause". Nonetheless, the intent of an artist 80 years ago won't necessarily have any bearing on the way something is seen now. While the SFISD's proposed solution is not ideal, it's certainly better than whitewashing the mural.

If readers are interested in WPA-sponsored Post Office murals in Texas, there is a beautiful book about them: The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People by Philip Parisi. That is where I got the above two images.