Life of Washington (murals)

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Arnautoff, Life of Washington.jpg

Artist: Victor Arnautoff

Year: 1936

Date of Action: December 2018-June 2019

Region: North America

Location: San Francisco, CA

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Painting, Public Art

Confronting Bodies: San Francisco Board of Education

Description of Artwork: “Life of Washington” is a mural in fresco comprising thirteen panels on the life of George Washington, and depict George Washington in both real and imagined scenarios in his life. It was painted by Russian-American painter and Stanford professor of art Victor Arnautoff in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco, with assistance from artists George Harris and Gorden Langdon.

Funded by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, the murals were Arnautoff’s largest New Deal commission and one of the largest ensembles of New Deal artworks at a single site. Arnautoff was a well-known muralist, having painted other WPA funded projects including murals at Coit Tower where he was Technical Director of the project.

Arnautoff, presented them as a counter-narrative to high school history texts of the time that aggrandized Washington; they depicted his dependence on slave labor, his belief in Manifest Destiny and his role in Westward Expansion and the “march of the white race” (in Arnautoff’s words). In one panel Washington is depicted pointing West over the body of dead Native American.

Arnautoff's political views as well as his work were influenced by Diego Rivera, for whom he worked as an assistant while living in Mexico. He joined the Communist Party, the American Artists' Congress and the San Francisco Artists and Writers Union. His politics were reflected in his work, which was part of a mural arts movement intended to inspire change through criticism of the political system. His style is considered more subtle than Rivera's and that of other social realists of the period.

The Incident: Two of the thirteen panels in the mural series have come under fire since the 1960’s for their controversial depictions of African-Americans and Native Americans. For decades, Native Americans and activists have called for the mural’s removal, most recently in December 2018 after Washington High School was denied landmark status specifically because of the mural’s offensiveness to Native Americans. The George Washington High School Alumni Association launched a campaign to save the mural. The alumni proposed adding interpretive panels to give historical context to the murals and to also document how they have been experienced by Native American, African American, and other students of color, keeping the 83-year-old mural intact.

The story was extensively covered in both local and national media. Those who would censor the work cited its depiction of slavery and the murder of a Native American as traumatizing to some students of color. Others, including NCAC and the leaders of four of San Francisco’s top visual arts institutions, argued that it is an artistic and historical treasure that does not celebrate the life of George Washington uncritically, and instead depicts him as complicit in slavery and the violent pursuit of America’s “Manifest Destiny.”

In the debate over the 13 murals, one side, which includes art historians and alumni, sees a valuable history lesson; the other, which includes many African-Americans and Native Americans, sees a hostile environment.

The high school is part of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and is under the jurisdiction of the Board of Education. The Board was divided about the school’s application for landmark status because designating it as such would make it impossible to modify or remove the murals afterwards.

In 2018, the SFUSD created a 13-member “Reflection and Action Group” to consider the provide a recommendation to the Board. They held four public meetings, and in February 2019 they issued their final recommendation to remove the entire mural series from the school.

On June 25, 2019, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to remove the murals.

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Source: Photo: Amanda Law "Photo" has not been listed as valid URI scheme., via "via https" has not been listed as valid URI scheme.