Artist: Victor Arnautoff ('Life of Washington' murals)
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 comprising thirteen panels in fresco on the life of George Washington that depict him in both real and imagined scenarios. It was painted by Russian-American painter and Stanford professor of art Victor Arnautoff in the 1930s (with assistance from artists George Harris and Gorden Langdon) and completed in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco.
Funded by the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) 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 the murals as a counter-narrative to high school history texts of the time. The murals depicted Washington's dependence on slave labor, his role in Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion, and the “march of the white race” (in Arnautoff’s words). In one panel Washington is depicted pointing westward over the body of dead Native American.
Arnautoff's political views were influenced by Diego Rivera, for whom he worked as an assistant while living in Mexico. His style is considered more subtle than Rivera's and that of other social realists of the period. Later 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 the mural arts movement intended to inspire change through criticism of the current political system.
Two of the mural panels have come under fire since the 1960’s for their depictions of African Americans and Native Americans. For decades, activists have called for their removal.
The Incident: In December 2018, George Washington High School was denied landmark status specifically due to the two panels containing offensive content. The high school is part of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and 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.
The SFUSD created a 13-member “Reflection and Action Group” to provide a recommendation to the Board. In February 2019, after four public meetings, they issued their final recommendation to remove the entire series of murals from the school.
The George Washington High School Alumni Association GWHSAA) launched a campaign to keep the 83-year-old murals intact. The alumni proposed adding interpretive panels to give them historical context and to also document how they have been experienced by Native American, African American, and other students of color.
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, but rather depicts him as complicit in slavery and the violent pursuit of America’s “Manifest Destiny.”
Results of Incident: On June 25, 2019, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to remove/paint over the murals.
Source: Photo: Amanda Law, via https://www.donnagraves.org/blog/2018/2/27/citywide-historic-context-for-new-deal-san-francisco
GEORGE WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL: ARNAUTOFF MURAL – SAN FRANCISCO CA https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/george-washington-high-school-arnautoff-mural-san-francisco-ca/
CITYWIDE HISTORIC CONTEXT FOR NEW DEAL SAN FRANCISCO https://www.donnagraves.org/blog/2018/2/27/citywide-historic-context-for-new-deal-san-francisco
NCAC Letter: May 6, 2019 SAN FRANCISCO HIGH SCHOOL MAY DESTROY HISTORICAL MURALS https://ncac.org/news/san-francisco-high-school-may-destroy-historical-murals
Professor Dewey Crumpler Defends GWHS Murals GWHS Alumni Assn SF CA Art Professor Dewey Crumpler defends Victor Arnautoff's (WPA/PWA 1936) Murals and discusses how the Arnautoff murals relate to his [Crumpler's] 1974 murals, and vice versa, at George Washington High School (San Francisco, California). We must face, not erase, America’s dark history. Censorship is never acceptable. - GWHS Alumni Association https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZEMpyvdAXQ&feature=youtu.be
June 26, 2019 San Francisco school board votes to destroy controversial Washington High mural Jill Tucker https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/San-Francisco-school-board-votes-to-destroy-14050025.php
SF school board votes to destroy circa 1936 mural “No one has the right to tell us as native people—or our young people who walk those halls everyday—how they feel” https://sf.curbed.com/2019/6/24/18716046/george-washington-high-murals-sfusd-vote-victor-arnautoff
SFUSD Approves Covering Controversial George Washington High School Mural https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2019/06/26/george-washington-high-school-mural-cover-up-sfusd/
June 25, 2019 Bay Area art leaders on censorship of George Washington High mural The controversial mural will see its fate decided during a Tuesday evening school board meeting https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/art-exhibits/bay-area-art-leaders-on-censorship-of-george-washington-high-mural
School board votes to paint over historic high school mural Alumni have threatened to sue over removal of frescoes depicting slavery, death of Native Americans https://www.sfexaminer.com/the-city/school-board-votes-to-paint-over-offensive-sections-of-historic-high-school-mural/
June 24, 2019 Open Forum: The San Francisco School Board is flunking history By Lope Yap Jr. https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Open-Forum-The-San-Francisco-School-Board-is-14039382.php
June 20, 2019 High school mural debate a reminder that destroying art destroys our culture https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/art-exhibits/high-school-mural-debate-a-reminder-that-destroying-art-destroys-our-culture
June 19, 2019 Activists want a racist San Francisco high school mural removed https://tworowtimes.com/opinion/activists-want-a-racist-san-francisco-high-school-mural-removed/
June 17, 2019 Fate of controversial SF high school mural down to three options https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Fate-of-controversial-SF-high-school-mural-down-14008090.php?psid=auUdw
June 15, 2019 National Coalition Against Censorship Urges Retaining Washington Murals https://sfrichmondreview.com/2019/06/15/national-coalition-against-censorship-urges-retaining-washington-murals/
June 10 2019 Activists want a high school mural removed. Should its impact today overshadow the artist's intentions? https://www.cnn.com/style/article/george-washington-mural-conversation/index.html
MAY 13, 2019 David and Art - "High School Mural" By BRODIE BASHAW https://www.kwbu.org/post/david-and-art-high-school-mural#stream/0
May 7, 2019 9:00 p.m Feds could weigh in on fight over preservation of historic mural SFUSD working group favors removal of controversial Washington High School fresco https://www.sfexaminer.com/the-city/feds-could-weigh-in-on-fight-over-preservation-of-historic-mural/
May 3, 2019 High School May Remove George Washington Mural that 'Traumatizes Students and Community Members' http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2019/may/high-school-may-remove-george-washington-mural-that-traumatizes-students-and-community-members
Apr 15, 2019 STUDENT OPINION Should School Murals That Depict an Ugly History Be Removed? https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/learning/should-school-murals-that-depict-an-ugly-history-be-removed.html
April 11, 2019 These High School Murals Depict an Ugly History. Should They Go? By Carol Pogash https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/11/arts/design/george-washington-murals-ugly-history-debated.html
April 9, 2019 Historic WPA murals at George Washington High School are facing destruction due to controversial depictions of Native Americans and African-Americans https://richmondsfblog.com/2019/04/09/historic-wpa-murals-at-george-washington-high-school-are-facing-destruction-due-to-controversial-depictions-of-native-americans-and-african-americans/
April 8, 2019 Critics say mural depicting slavery, Native Americans at a San Francisco high school is offensive http://www.ktvu.com/news/ktvu-local-news/critics-say-mural-depicting-slavery-native-americans-at-a-san-francisco-high-school-is-offensive
Offensive or important? Debate flares anew over SF school mural depicting slavery https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Offensive-or-important-Debate-flares-anew-over-13748800.php
April 2, 2019 Washington High Alumni Push to Keep Dubious Mural A mural showing colonizers stepping over a dead Native American has long been controversial, but an alumni group is fighting to save it. http://www.sfweekly.com/news/washington-high-alumni-push-to-keep-dubious-mural/