"History of San Francisco" murals, Rincon Annex PO - San Francisco CA
The former Rincon Annex post office (now Rincon Center) has an extraordinary set of murals, 27 large panels along the upper wall of the lobby of the old post office. They tell the “History of California” from the Spanish conquest of California to the founding of the United Nations in the city at the end of the Second World War.
These murals are the work of Anton Refregier, an artist with a leftist bent and a strong streak of independence. They are an astonishing accomplishment in terms of scale, historical vision and artistic style, which is quite unlike most mural art of the time.
The Rincon Community Center blog offers this account of the making of the murals:
“In 1941, the W.P.A. held a competition for murals. The contest was won by Anton Refregier, a Russian born artist, who became famous for his work at the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair. He was paid a large sum of $26,000 for his work. The murals, which depict the history of Northern California, were begun but quickly suspended due to the onset [of] World War II. Between 1941 and 1945, Rincon Annex was an extremely busy environment. Work was resumed in 1946 and over the next two years some 92 changes were made to satisfy special interest groups. The work was finished in 1948 and covers 400 feet of wall space. The work is not a fresco, but rather a case-in-tempera on white gesso over plaster wall. It remains the largest single commission by the Painting and Sculpture Division for the W.P.A.”
Alas, the above entry makes the common mistake of attributing post office murals to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), instead of the Treasury Section of Fine Art (the WPA did not even exist any more when these murals were painted). It should be added that the Rincon Annex murals were not just the largest of the New Deal murals, but the last ones ever done – giving San Francisco the distinction of being home to the first New Deal murals (at Coit Tower) and the last.
Refregier’s take on San Francisco history turned many of the cherished myths of California on their heads and dared to show some of the uglier aspects of the past. He did not just make changes “to satisfy special interest groups,” he was forced to modify several of the panels in order to save the murals from destruction in the face of conservative attacks on his vision of local history – e.g., change the panel on the Vigilantes and rename it “Torchlight Parade”.
The Rincon Community blog continues correctly to say: “The greatest challenge came during the McCarthy era (1953), when a resolution was introduced to the United States Congress to destroy the murals (they were thought to be Communistic in tone). This objection to the work of art was soundly defeated.” For more on this controversy, read this article by Gray Brechin that appeared in the Living New Deal newsletter in 2017.
Other artists who participated in the mural competition included Wendell Jones who submitted a mural entitled “Medical Cyclotron.” A sketch of the mural is pictured here. The finished panels are at the De Young museum in San Francisco.
Originally posted in the New Deal Art Registry
KQED, Meet the Artist, Anton Refregier | New Deal Murals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q46oIFK29RI&index=40&list=PL1LaW-AR98H_RUeD7awSu7zB41SiOPmI3
Project originally submitted by Barbara Bernstein on July 22, 2013.
Additional contributions by Richard A Walker, Gray Brechin.
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