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San Francisco votes to destroy Victor Arnautoff murals made in 1930s. Complains are voiced by advocates of American Indians and African Americans.

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San Francisco votes to destroy Victor Arnautoff murals made in 1930s. Complains are voiced by advocates of American Indians and African Americans.

15.07.2019

Alexander Ryazantsev

As it was reported before, the Municipal Educational Council in San Francisco has taken a decision to paint over the murals on the walls of the local George Washington High School. According to the Russian Community Council of the USA (KSORS), it was recommended by the Reflection and Action Group designated by San Francisco municipal School District.

What is so remarkable about these paintings and why is the situation so interesting for the Russkiy Mir? Actually, the thirteen panels of The Life of George Washington mural were painted in 1935-1936 by Viktor Arnautoff, a Russian émigré artist.

The mural’s opponents have their reasons, and they do not relate to Russophobia as the one could imagine. Advocates of minority rights are not comfortable with the 80 years old work by Arnautoff because, according to them, the mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, the Manifest destiny, superiority of the white population … and oppression.”

Photo credit: Youtube screenshot

The connoisseur of the Russian muralist's creative work, US professor Robert Cherny who wrote Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art (2017) book, believes that this situation is caused just by misunderstanding, as well as reluctance to see the obvious intention of the artist.

Thus, Professor Cherny asserts in his biography that the actual purpose of these paintings was not to glorify slavery and genocide, but to emphasize the exploitation and oppression of people of color in the United States. The artist, on the contrary, condemned these pages of American history in his mural depicting scenes from George Washingtons life.

Everything has been turned upside down. But American activists — fighters for the rights of American Indians and African Americans don't care. They see only the outline: here is the first American president sends pioneers, armed colonists to the West with his imperious gesture. A defeated American Indian lies under his feet.

Here is another example: there are dark-skinned slaves depicted in the corner of one of the murals. They are reaping the harvest at the George Washingtons Mount Vernon, his ancestral estate. Another mural depicts African men and women peeling corn, working in the forge, loading bales onto a ship, picking cotton

Photo credit: news.artnet.com

Photo credit: Youtube screenshot

How can all of that be interpreted? Isnt it about history? There is no any doubt in that. Yes, George Washington, the founding father of the United States and a national hero, was a planter and a slave owner; many of his former slaves had the surname of Washington. Isnt it about art? There is no any doubt as well. Everything appears to be clear, but not for American activists. From their point of view, everything is unequivocal - these are acts of violence and conquest, scenes of oppression, and there is nothing more. That is the reason these images shall be buried in oblivion, i.e. painted over.

And no explanations could help here. There seems to be no context, no hidden meaning for American minority advocates. And the idea that the author expresses his protest and sympathizes with the humiliated through the painting depicting, for example, submission of the natives to white colonizers, seems to be absolutely beyond their understanding.

As a matter of fact, murals by Arnautoff shall not be destroyed. Moreover, they can be used by school teachers to visualize ideas of white superiority that once dominated the society and then were strongly rejected by it. And nobodys feelings would be hurt. The authors of the petition in defense of the Russian artists murals posted on Change.org do believe so.


Victor Mikhail Arnautoff (1896 – 1979) is a man of unique fate. He was a son of an Orthodox priest and spent his youth in Mariupol where he began painting. During World War I he fought in the Uhlan squadron and was awarded the Officer Cross of St. George. When the Civil War began, he was living in Simbirsk. Arnautoff was mobilized into the army of Kolchak, with which he retreated to the Far East. Just as many White Army officers, he emigrated settling first in Manchuria.

In 1925, the artist leaves for the United States, where he enters the California Art School. Inspired by mural painting, he temporarily moved to Mexico, where he became a student of Diego Rivera, the 20th century Mexican muralist.

In 1931 Arnautoff comes back to the USA where he receives his first orders. The artist works on the design of metro stations, the house of the World Library, a clinic in Palo Alto, and several other buildings and facilities in San Francisco, including the George Washington School. In 1936 Arnautoff created the mural series called The Life of George Washington.

To understand the ideological component of the Russian émigrés creativity, It is important to keep in mind the following: during all those years Victor Arnautoff was still a convinced communist and a member of the US Communist Party; he actively participated in public campaigns in support of the USSR. During the years of the Second World War he headed the Russian-American Society for Assistance to the Red Army, which, ironically, had once forced him to flee his country.

It is hardly believable that a man of such views, a student of Rivera, could have glorified slavery, genocide and superiority of the white race in his works. Yes, there are communists who hard-line dictatorship in the name of the bright better future, but it is impossible to imagine a communist defending racism and any form of oppression of a man by man.

The self-portrait by V. M. Arnautoff, 1941. Photo credit: ru.wikipedia.org

The artist gained the recognition as early as in the 1930s. Different cities of the United States repeatedly hosted his solo exhibitions. From 1939 to 1963 he was teaching in the Stanford. However, his motherlands voice was stronger. In 1961, Arnautoff visited the USSR for the first time. In 1963, after retirement and his wifes death, he returned to his native Mariupol (renamed as Zhdanov) and took citizenship of the USSR.

Arnautoff continued his work in the USSR. He decorated many public buildings in his native city with murals and mosaics. The artist died as a profoundly old man, at the age of 82, in the village of Vyritsa near Leningrad.

It is always sad when ideological dictate in society results in destruction of works of art. The news on destruction of Viktor Arnautoffs works is doubly disappointing to us, the Russians.

According to the Voice of Russian Speaking America (ForumDaily.com), back then, creation of the murals was funded by a special government agency established by President Franklin Roosevelt within the framework of the New Deal. And the art of Arnautoff was highly praised by critics. Truth be told, protests by American human rights defenders began in the late 1960s, but then a compromise was reached by adding murals by Dewey Crumpler, an African-American artist, to the Arnautoffs work. However, demands to remove or hide the work of the Soviet artist did not stop.

The current stage of the campaign against the frescoes in the George Washington School was launched by an activist of the American Indians rights movement, whose son studies at this school. According to her, when the child passed by these murals, he always lowered his eyes. What a sensitive boy!

As the activist stated, the murals reflect American history from the colonialists point of view. She is echoed by Virginia Marshall, the president of the Afro-American Teachers Union of San Francisco, recalling how her great-grandfather and great-grandmother were beaten and hanged on the trees. So, that is the reason for the artist's work, which has been there for 80 years and has already become a city heritage, to be destroyed, isnt it? Sentimentality can also be aggressive. Stevon Cook, the president of the San Francisco Education Council, who is an African-American himself, believes that the scenes depicted in the Arnautoffs murals are offensive to some communities.

However, the Russian artists works have their own advocates, although they are in the minority. The George Washington High School Alumni Association stated that the murals by Arnautoff were the largest and most significant work created in the city under the Roosevelt program. Arnautoff's murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical and educational value. Painting them over will lead to another "white washing" of the whole truth about American history," believe members of the Association.

More than 400 American artists signed a petition demanding to leave Arnautoffs work intact. They are sure that the communist artist was engaged in "an objective analysis of exploitation and colonial violence" through his works. And by voting for destruction of the anti-racist monument, the Municipal Educational Council grossly misrepresented logic and design of the artist.

Unfortunately, advocates of Victor Arnautoffs creative heritage in America failed to convince officials of their point despite the fact that they had offered several options on how to keep the painting intact. Addressing advocates of Arnautoffs work, the head of the Municipal Educational Council stated: If they are so much upset with the entire situation, let them order their own murals. Such answer does not seem to imply any further discussions or a doubt in being right. Well, people who have got a little power are not different at all, whatever country they are from.

The Municipal Educational Council in San Francisco has already allocated the money for destruction of the mural. The cost, by the way, is rather significant: according to various estimates, it amounts from 600 to 850 thousand dollars.

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