Matt Gonzalez says: about Washington High Arnautoff murals

We have a Arnautoff mural here in Palo Alto at the old medical building that is becoming a history museum. The controversy here was that it showed a woman’s bosom as she is being checked by the male doc.

New York Times Roberta Smith had a compelling save the mural article. So did the Chron guy, whose name I am forgetting – -although I wrote to thank him and he wrote back.

I also met, not to digress, the Chron photo ace, Scott Strazzante, tho I forgot I think to ask him about Washington High. I think I asked him about Jeff Adachi.

Here’s Matt:

A controversy over murals painted in the lobby of a San Francisco High School in the 1930s has proponents of their removal comparing the murals to Confederate statues and labeling anyone who favors keeping them as fostering white supremacist culture. But these murals depict inconvenient historical facts which Americans should be aware of and taught to wrestle with. The 13-panel mural was painted by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian emigre, when George Washington High School opened in the Richmond District in 1936. Arnautoff, a muralist who worked with Diego Rivera and on the Coit Tower murals, was commissioned by the WPA to depict the life of our nation’s first president.

Resistant to glorifying George Washington and portraying him in strictly patriotic fashion, Arnautoff presented a history lesson reminding us that our Founding Fathers, who championed individual liberty, owned slaves. He inserted another historical truth: that our nation was founded by Europeans, who had decimated the native population under the veil of manifest destiny, which purportedly gave settlers the right to the land already occupied by others. As a result, the murals depict now controversial images of slaves picking cotton at Mount Vernon and a prostrate Native American, presumably killed, being passed by frontier settlers.

Today, opponents of the mural appear largely indifferent to what the offending images actually represent, preferring to view the images out of context as if they only depict slaves and a dead Indian. But wouldn’t it be more offensive had Arnautoff left out the history of slavery and the genocide of native peoples from his mural? Would these opponents of the mural prefer a sanitized depiction of history that omits the oppression of their ancestors?

Arnautoff tells an uncomfortable truth about our nation’s history: that this country was built over the bodies of other people. Washington and many signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. We shouldn’t paper over these truths; we should confront them. This was Arnautoff’s point. Students must see what preceded them in order to fight for justice and more decency.


Just this month, researchers published findings in Nature magazine that DNA from skeletal remains found in Siberia, in Eastern Russia, bear a striking similarity to that of Native Americans in the United States. These scientific findings confirm that migration over the Bering Strait brought the first people to our continent via a land bridge connecting Siberia to Alaska. This fact reminds us that our past is intertwined as is our genetic makeup. Embracing commonalities and shared history can lessen the othernessnecessary to perpetuate division.

The Arnautoff murals should also be preserved because they are artistically significant: they’re painted in an archaic fresco manner popular during the Renaissance, in which pigment is applied to wet plaster, something rarely seen today. It’s worth noting that Arnautoff didn’t run out of color when he painted the gray settlers marching past the fallen Native American. He cast a shadow over the scene making clear this was a solemn moment. Arnautoff depicted the scene with great empathy.


Part of the mural completed by Dewey Crumpler in 1974 at George Washington High School.

Dewey Crumpler, now an associate professor at San Francisco Art Institute, was commissioned to paint additional murals at George Washington HS in the 1970s. He considers his mural in dialogue with Arnautoff’s. Together they tell a compelling story of American history filled with Crumpler’s depiction of the struggle of people of color, which augment those by Arnautoff.

In his day, Arnautoff and his leftist contemporaries attracted the contempt of conservatives like Richard Nixon, who wanted their murals removed and objected to awarding commissions to them. Arnautoff was even subpoenaed by the House Unamerican Activities Committee to answer for his political views. Rather than attack a mural painted by an ally of theirs, opponents should focus on real villains — those who whitewash history by pretending terrible things didn’t once happen.

Fair Play!

(I think I shot the PA mural a few weeks ago, if I can expunge it out of my 20,000 cell phone images, or I can just shoot again, it’s ten blocks from here)


Matt let me know if I am going out of bounds by reprinting you like this. let’s talk alter about our plans for another poetry Be-In for Alden Van Buskirk, David Rattray.

ps I liked that the Times writer suggested or imagined that Washington High could be a national treasure, has other art, like the reliefs on the football field. She suggests, that like the famous (I made it so!!!) Cubberley Center here, The Wash could be an arts center if it expires as a school.

Also, I recall a while ago not sure I covered it here, the tip of the sword on this whole PC backlash thing: something a mural with sweaty too muscled slaves being removed from the wall of an Atlanta public building. (Maybe I wrote “404 in the 404” about it??)
and from Palo alto welcome week site: who knew?
Victor Arnautoff, 1896-1979

Victor Mikhail Arnautoff was a Russian-American painter and art professor. He was born in the Russian Empire in 1896, and though he showed early artistic talent, when World War I began, he enrolled in military school and held leadership positions in the White Siberian army. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he escaped into northeasten China, where he remained for five years. There, he met and married Lydia Blonsky, and they had two sons.

In 1925, Arnautoff arrived in San Francisco on a student visa to study at the California School of Fine Arts. He became active in the city’s leftist arts scene. In 1929, he moved to Mexico and worked as Diego Rivera’s assistant. When Rivera left temporarily to paint a mural in the U.S., Arnautoff was left in charge of the murals at Palacio Nacional in Mexico. The Arnautoffs’ third son was born in Mexico.

In 1931, Victor’s family moved back to San Francisco. Victor completed his first mural commission in 1932 for the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, here at the Roth Building. The frescoes he created for the clinic contrasted modern medicine with earlier medical practices. Initially, the frescoes caused a minor scandal because patients were depicted partially undressed. Residents drove slowly along Homer Avenue to view the murals, causing a traffic jam and provoking a threat from clinic surgeon Fritz Roth that he would move in once the walls were whitewashed. (The furor abated and the murals remain.)

In the 1930s, Victor completed murals at the Coit Tower in San Francisco, the Presidio chapel, George Washington High School, and the California School of Fine Arts. His works focused on humanist themes, including concerns about class, labor, and power. He also held solo exhibitions throughout the 1930s. Victor taught art at Stanford University from 1938 to 1962, and beginning the late 1940s, he also taught at the California Labor School. Arnautoff held leftist political views, and he joined the Communist Party and several artists’ unions. His politics were often reflected in his work.

Though he had become a naturalized U.S. citizen, Victor returned to the Soviet Union two years after his wife died in 1961. He published a memoir and created large tile mosaics. He remarried in 1970 and died in Leningrad in 1979.

Take a photo of yourself at the Roth Building, the future home of the Palo Alto Museum, and post it to Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #PaloAltoWelcomeWeek!

Tommy Jordan the founder of the band Geggy Tah had a song in high school called “Jim Newton Says” about his classmate the future Los Angeles Times editorial page editor. I’m sort of saying Matt is an oracle like Jim Newton (or Jim Newton circa 1981? Sometimes I don’t even know what I am saying!)

About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player, and blogger; he also sang in local choir, fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32 Reads 'Howl' and owns a couple musical instruments he cannot play
This entry was posted in art, Plato's Republic, sex and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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