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 "Photo" has not been listed as valid URI scheme., via https://www.donnagraves.org/blog/2018/2/27/citywide-historic-context-for-new-deal-san-francisco "via https" has not been listed as valid URI scheme.
GEORGE WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL: ARNAUTOFF MURAL – SAN FRANCISCO CA
CITYWIDE HISTORIC CONTEXT FOR NEW DEAL SAN FRANCISCO
NCAC Op-Ed July 12, 2019
Open Forum: SF school board need not be a regime that destroys art
By Svetlana Mintcheva
NCAC Letter: May 6, 2019
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
June 26, 2019
San Francisco school board votes to destroy controversial Washington High mural
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