Turning Controversy into Consensus

Olin Dows, 1937

Olin Dows, 1937
Dows painted the post office murals in Rhinebeck and Hyde Park, New York. He served as an administrator for the first New Deal relief program for artists, the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), and later headed the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). Courtesy, Wilderstein Preservation.

The New Deal’s efforts to create jobs extended to thousands of artists on relief. Between 1934 and 1943, several government-sponsored programs dedicated to art and culture sponsored the creation of artworks in public buildings. The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, later renamed the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, commissioned more than 1,400 murals in post offices nationwide.

In addition to putting artists to work, the post office murals were seen as a way to boost general morale during hardships of the Great Depression. Many of the murals feature historical depictions of the places in which they reside. Some have sparked controversy for their depictions of race and gender.

The murals at the Rhinebeck, New York, Post Office are the work of (Stephen) Olin Dows (1904-1981), a native of the Hudson River Valley and family friend of FDR.  Dows studied at Harvard and the Yale School of Fine Arts and, significantly, spent the summer of 1929 in Mexico where he met such luminaries as Diego Rivera. 

Dows’ twelve murals at the Rhinebeck Post Office depict over 400 years of the region’s history, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 through the post office’s dedication in 1939.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Enslaved men had been described as “stevedores” in a 1940 brochure about the murals. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

Slavery was common in New York until it was abolished in 1827. Dows’ murals include several images of Blacks that likely were slaves. One mural portrays two men carrying cargo to a waiting sloop. Another shows a man working at a brick kiln. A third shows a youth harvesting corn.

Some Rhinebeck residents questioned whether depictions of enslaved people should remain part of a public mural. Dows’ depictions of Native Americans also came under criticism. When the Regional Office of the Postal Service, citing public concerns, announced last year that it planned to remove or cover the murals, Rhinebeck residents saw an opportunity to open a discussion about racial justice and Black history.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Depictions of Blacks and Native Americans sparked a community dialogue. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

The goal of the community conversation, which was held online owing to the pandemic, was to listen and understand, and not change minds. The participants included local officials and community representatives who adopted guidelines they called, “I say, I see…”  The discussions resulted in an alternative to removing the murals by improving their role as educational artifacts. 

Dows intended the Rhinebeck murals to be educational as well as a celebration of local history. In 1940 he authored a companion brochure explaining the murals panel by panel. When the murals came under threat, Dows’ original brochure became the inspiration for a new brochure that would address the murals’ controversial content.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.
Controversies can arise when New Deal-era murals include imagery considered offensive today. Courtesy, DCHS.

A consensus emerged around the need to provide historical context for the murals. The revised brochure, “Invisible People, Untold Stories” focuses on seven of the murals’ scenes. Under “The Mural Depicts,” text explains that General and Janet Montgomery, shown planting seedlings, settled in Rhinebeck in 1774.  Opposite, under “Source Materials Reveal,” we also learn that 421 of Rhinebeck’s 491 persons of color were enslaved.  In another example, “The Mural Depicts” we see Black “stevedores” at work. Under “Source Materials Reveal” we learn that one enslaved stevedore named Tom was 24 years old in 1799 and stood 5 feet 10 inches tall.  

”Invisible People, Untold Stories”
A community conversation resulted in a booklet that provides historical context for the Rhinebeck murals. Photo by Bill Jeffway.

The brochures are used in local schools, but the booklet is essentially an online tool. A digital kiosk, offering a self-guided educational tool that can be viewed from any touchscreen, is in development. Outreach to tribal representatives has just begun to evaluate the potential for more learning opportunities.

View the booklet, “Invisible People, Untold Stories”

Learn more about endangered New Deal artworks and ways communities and institutions can respond.

UCSF Development Puts Murals at Risk

Ruth Gottstein, the artist’s daughter—Zakheim’s mural at Coit Tower depicts Ruth wearing a sailor suit.

Ruth Gottstein, the artist’s daughter
Zakheim’s mural at Coit Tower depicts Ruth wearing a sailor suit.

My grandfather, Bernard Zakheim, was a seminal figure in the New Deal art world. He immigrated from Warsaw to New York in 1920, then made his way to San Francisco. 

In the mid-1930s, Bernard coordinated the twenty-five muralists who created frescoes in San Francisco’s landmark Coit Tower. This was the largest of many endeavors sponsored by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which later became the Federal Art Project (FAP) that employed struggling artists nationwide during the Great Depression.  

The Coit Tower murals, conceptualized by Zakheim, depict various scenes of life in California. Bernard’s fresco, “The Library,” shows a man removing a book by Karl Marx from a shelf. The mural includes an image of the artist’s daughter—my mother, Ruth, as a 12-year-old, wearing a blue-and-white sailor suit. At 97, she still tells the story of when she stood on Market Street with her father and witnessed striking dock workers in the days leading up to the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. The strike inspired some Coit Tower artists to include themes of labor unrest and economic inequity in the murals they painted there.

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned Zakheim to paint a series of frescoes at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). The eleven panels in Toland Hall graphically depict the evolution of medicine in California. Among the historical figures are Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assisting Dr. John S. Griffin, one of California’s earliest trained physicians, in the treatment of a malaria patient. 

Zackheim Murals—Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assists Dr. John S. Griffin in the treatment of a malaria patient.

Zakheim Murals at Toland Hall, UCSF
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assists Dr. John S. Griffin.
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

The colossal undertaking of these Toland Hall murals may soon be undone as plans proceed to tear down the old hospital to make way for a new facility. The potential destruction of these murals comes amid assaults on other New Deal artworks when there is a change to the public spaces they embellish, or when controversy arises regarding their content. For instance, the threatened destruction of “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School by muralist Victor Arnautoff, also a WPA artist at Coit Tower, galvanized San Francisco’s arts community. 

Bernard’s work has been threatened before: with neglect, water damage, political controversy and censorship. As an example, the lower half of a 1930s-era fresco he painted at the Alemany Emergency Hospital and Health Center in San Francisco was painted over in the 1950s. The fresco was saved six decades later when his son, Nathan Zakheim, expertly removed the paint.

Even the Coit Tower murals, a major city attraction, were neglected for years. Legislation approved by the voters saved the murals and upgraded the building. 

From both an artistic and historical perspective, the Toland Hall murals are irreplaceable. Like many New Deal works, they are a window on the past. Importantly, they are remnants of an era when government exalted and funded the arts. Given this most recent threat, another rescue campaign is underway. As a family, we continue to do all we can to ensure the murals’ survival so that future generations can appreciate and learn from them.

Watch: Tour the Toland Hall murals tour with Dr. Chauncey Leake, 1976 (45 minutes)

 
Superstitious Medicine and Rational Medicine

Superstitious Medicine and Rational Medicine
WPA artist Bernard Zakheim studied with Diego Rivera, whose influence can been seen in the Toland Hall murals.
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

 
Viewing murals at Toland Hall at UCSF, left to right: F. Stanley Durie, Superintendent of UC Hospital, Dr. William E. Carter, Phyllis Wrightson, Joseph Allen, State Director of WPA Federal Art Project, Bernard Zakheim (ca. 1939)

Zakheim Murals
Viewing murals at Toland Hall at UCSF, left to right: F. Stanley Durie, Superintendent of UC Hospital, Dr. William E. Carter, Phyllis Wrightson, Joseph Allen, State Director of WPA Federal Art Project, Bernard Zakheim (ca. 1939)  Source

Zakheim at work, 1937—The artist at Toland Hall, University of California Hospital

Zakheim at work, 1937
The artist at Toland Hall, University of California Hospital
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Adam Gottstein

 

Past Is Prologue: Oregon Murals Provide a “Teachable Moment”

Library Mural

Library Mural
“Development of Science”
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

Just as the controversy over the Victor Arnautoff murals in San Francisco’s George Washington High School draws national and even international attention, New Deal era murals in the University of Oregon’s main library stir debate over public art, representations of gender and race, and conditions for an inclusive campus environment. The future of the Knight Library murals, however, was decided in a much different way, with a much different conclusion–and offers a model for engagement with challenging public art.

The controversy surrounding the Knight Library murals began several years ago as students launched successive protests over three murals installed as part of the 1937 New Deal-era library’s east and west stairwells. The focus was on the WPA artists Arthur and Albert Runquist’s pictorial murals “The Development of Science” and “The Development of Art.” The Runquist brothers, graduates of the University of Oregon, shipyard workers and regionally known artists, were associated with progressive politics. Today’s critical analysis, however, draws attention to their selective narrative. As shown in “The Development of Science,” progress is suggested by a tree portraying eight vignettes from the early human discovery of fire and agriculture to science in the early 20th century. Its emphasis on Western civilization and a limited representation based on gender and race normalizes forms of privilege that university values presumably should challenge. Certainly, twenty-first century UO students have.

Mural, "The Mission of a University"

Mural, "The Mission of a University"
The words “our racial heritage” were defaced with red ink.
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

The mural that draws the greatest fire, however, is titled “The Mission of a University,” inscribed on the wall as if it were a medieval manuscript. The text borrows from a 1909 speech by UO Sociology professor Frederick Young in which he argues the service required of a university, contending: “From now on it must be a climb if our nation is to hold its position among the nations of the Earth. It means conservation and betterment not merely of our national resources but also of our racial heritage and of opportunity to the lowliest.”

A student petition, filed in November 2017, called for the University to remove it—mobilizing over 1,750 students in the process.  During the summer of 2018, the mural was defaced. A protestor highlighted the phrase racial heritage” with red paint and left a taunting note: “Which art do you choose to conserve now?”  

The library administration’s response was to clean the mural, send the note to be archived as part of the campus’ history of protest, and to place a placard next to the mural acknowledging the defacement, yet calling for “continuing our cross-campus project to contextualize these artifacts for educational and cultural reasons, and for allowing them to remain uncensored as evidence of the embedded racist and sexist legacy against which many of us still struggle.”

Librarian’s Response

Librarian’s Response
Placard addressing vandalism of the Knight Library Mural
Photo Credit: Judith Kenny

Education rather than erasure has been the consistent response from the administration. This might, in part, be understood as an aspect of its conservation responsibilities for a building with historic preservation requirements. Completed in 1937, the Knight Library was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. It exemplifies the quality of public building that could be produced through the financing of the New Deal’s PWA and WPA programs and the creativity inspired by the WPA Federal Arts Program. Because the murals are embedded in the library’s walls, removal would likely destroy them. But the conservation of a building, as the placard cited, is less an issue than is the uncensored evidence of an “embedded racist and sexist legacy.”

Even as protests took place, in February 2017, Adrienne Lim, Dean of Libraries, launched the Knight Library Public Art Task Force, charged with several tasks. Just last month, it submitted its report to the University Senate.

Knight Library

Knight Library
University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon
Photo Credit: Howard Davis

The first task was to set up a committee of library faculty members to work on a guide to the library’s historic resources. The second, overseen by a committee of students and faculty members, involved conducting a public forum, “Public Art, Cultural Memory, and Anti-Racism” to explore public art as an artifact representing past and contemporary values. The third task undertook a juried exhibit of student art that reflected contemporary values, titled “Show Up, Stand Out, Empower!”

A public forum, “Public Art, Cultural Memory and Anti-racism,” discussed the implications of removing the “The Mission of the University” mural.  Professor Laura Pulido, Head of the Department of Ethnic Studies, argued against removal, “I understand that many want to tear down racist symbols of the past for reasons I respect. But I am opposed to such erasures,” she said, adding, “The only way to move forward to not be held hostage to our past is to engage the past.”

The “Life of Washington” Murals Explained

Click on the images below to enlarge.

 

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Arnautoff at work at GW High School, Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Victor Arnautoff was one of the most prolific artists of the New Deal. Born in Russia in 1896, he served as a Calvary officer in WWI, and later in one of the White armies during the Russian Civil War. He arrived in San Francisco in 1925 to study art. When his student visa expired, he spent two years in Mexico as an assistant to the muralist Diego Rivera. In 1931, Arnautoff and his family returned to San Francisco, where he began to produce buon fresco murals, a technique in which the artist paints on wet plaster. The paint penetrates and becomes part of the wall, making frescoes very difficult to move.

Working for the WPA in 1936, Arnautoff created thirteen fresco murals at George Washington High School. Entitled the “Life of Washington,” the murals cover 1,600 square feet of the walls and ceilings of the school’s entry and main hallway. Arnautoff did extensive research for the murals. He wrote in his memoirs that he wanted to show two things: the life of George Washington and what he called the “spirit of his times.”  He also said, “The artist must be a critic of his society.” Arnautoff, who would soon join the Communist Party, called himself a social realist. He thought his paintings should show realistic people rather than abstract imagery, and felt an obligation to be a social critic.

Mural series, “Life of Washington”
Photo: Richard Evans

The first mural chronologically in Washington’s life is divided by an image of a tree.

Photo: Robert Cherny

On one side of this mural Arnautoff portrays Washington’s early life, including as a surveyor. On the other side he shows the French and Indian War, Washington’s first military experience. 

French Indian War
Photo: Richard Evans

Instead of placing Washington in the middle of this scene, Arnautoff put American Indians in the center, surrounded on all sides by the British, the French, and the American colonials. 

Raising the Flag
Photo: Richard Evans

Here Arnautoff depicted the origins of the American Revolution—the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the burning of the tax stamps. Again, Arnautoff did not put Washington in the center. Washington is in the upper right, arriving to take command of the army. In the middle, Arnautoff painted several working-class men raising the new flag.

Men in Rags Valley Forge
Photo: Robert Cherny

This mural depicts the first winter at Valley Forge. The usual depiction of this event is a portrait of Washington praying in the snow. Arnautoff did something quite different. He shows Washington and three members of the Continental Congress warmly dressed in winter clothing and the enlisted men dressed in rags, their feet wrapped in bandages. Washington is pointing out the poor condition of his troops as a way of persuading Congress to give him more financial support. To me, this is Arnautoff’s social commentary on class privilege at the time of the American Revolution.

Mercenary Surrender
Photo: Robert Cherny

Arnautoff’s sketches for the mural suggest that this is a Hessian mercenary surrendering at Yorktown. Washington is absent from this mural. It is enlisted troops doing their duty.

Bidding Farewell Officer
Photo: Robert Cherny

This mural shows Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War bidding farewell to his officers, including Lafayette and Von Steuben, perhaps Arnautoff’s way of emphasizing that the American revolutionaries needed assistance from abroad to win their war of independence.

Washington with Hamilton and Jefferson
Photo: Robert Cherny

Opposite that mural, Arnautoff depicted Washington as president, mediating between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the new Constitution.

Alcove Banner
Photo: Robert Cherny

At the entrance to that alcove, Arnautoff put this banner with a quotation from Washington about the importance of educational institutions.

Washington with Mother
Photo: Robert Cherny

In the final alcove, Arnautoff presented two more scenes related to Washington’s presidency. This one shows him bidding farewell to his dying mother. By some accounts, Washington was reluctant to leave her, but she encouraged him to go because of the importance of the work facing him as the first president.

Washington with Children
Photo: Robert Cherny

Arnautoff learned through his research that Washington had tried to create a national university. 

Mount Vernon
Photo: Richard Evans

Now controversial, this mural shows Washington at his Mount Vernon plantation. Once again, Washington is on the margins. Arnautoff put enslaved African Americans at in the center of this mural. This was his comment on the fact— all too often ignored in the 1930s—that the same men who signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring “all men are created equal,” owned other people as property. For Arnautoff this was one of the great contradictions of Washington’s time, and he makes clear in this mural that Washington was dependent on enslaved labor for his wealth. Arnautoff was clearly using his art to provide social criticism.

Pioneer Mural
Photo: Richard Evans

Arnautoff said that, in his research for the mural, he looked for ways to connect Washington to the West. This would have been difficult because at the time the nation ended at the Mississippi River. But he found a reference to Washington making a statement about the significance of the West.

Arnautoff divided this now-controversial mural into three separate stories.   Washington is on the left side, pointing west. In the center, Arnautoff’s social criticism is seen in what the artist called “the march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Arnautoff’s murals are all painted in color, but these westward marching pioneers are shown in a ghastly grey scale—a technique he learned from Diego Rivera. Arnautoff’s pioneers are marching past a dead Indian warrior, his commentary on the settlement of the West.

The third story in this mural is on the right, where a white man and an American Indian chief are sitting down together with a peace pipe. Over their heads, however, is a broken branch, apparently Arnautoff’s way of depicting broken promises and treaties.

For Arnautoff, the “spirit of the times” of early American history involved its greatest injustices: slavery and the killing and dispossession of America’s First People.  

Liberty Ceiling Mural
Photo: Robert Cherny

On the ceiling of the first alcove, Arnautoff placed the moon, a symbol of war, and above the second, a sun and rainbow, symbols for peace. On the ceiling of the third alcove is Liberty putting thirteen new stars onto a blue field. 

Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook, by David W. Gates, Jr.

As a through hiker on the Appalachian Trail some years back, David W. Gates Jr. would stop to pick up the supplies he had mailed to himself at the tiny post offices along the route that were his lifeline during his 6-month, 2,176-mile trek through 14 states. He’s been photographing and writing about post offices ever since.

After penning hundreds of stories for his blog, Gates has published a book about post office murals in Wisconsin commissioned during the New Deal.

Many of the nation’s post offices were constructed between 1934 and 1943 to provide jobs for unemployed workers. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture—later renamed the Section of Fine Arts—held competitions for artists to decorate these and other federal buildings. Many post offices in small towns got murals from the Treasury Relief Art Project. These post office murals often depicted the history, character, and industry of the towns where they were installed.

According to the U.S. Postal Service’s website, the Postal Service is making every effort to preserve this “uniquely American art…and safeguard it for future generations.” But, in fact, the Postal Service is selling off hundreds of historic post offices, many with New Deal artworks. David has been trying to photograph them before they disappear from public view.

The Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook offers the traveler the locations of post offices where the public still has access to the murals (all of which were created with public funds), as well as information about those that have been removed or closed to public view.

The guidebook contains 70 color photographs, the location, and status of these endangered assets. Because many post office murals were not signed, often USPS clerks themselves don’t know the names of the artists or titles of the murals where they work. Gates’ book—soon to be followed by another that explores the subject more deeply—will open their and others’ eyes to an overlooked public treasure.

A New Deal Muralist’s Work Lives On

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse, Opening Day, January 22,1936

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse
Opening Day at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, January 22,1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Denied admission to art colleges, Hilaire Hiler left Rhode Island for Paris in 1919 where he opened a legendary nightclub. At the Jockey Club, the first after-hours club in the Montparnasse District, Hiler painted the walls with colorful murals, and famously sang and played jazz piano with a monkey perched on his shoulder. The club proved wildly successful. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray were among the artists and writers on the Paris scene in the 1920s who frequented Hiler’s club and became his friends.

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural, Maritime Museum, Aquatic Park

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural
Mural by Hilaire Hiler,  Aquatic Park, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

 

Anais Nin introduced Hiler to Otto Rank, a close colleague of Sigmund Freud. Hiler attended classes at Rank’s Institute of Psychoanalysis–an adjunct of the Sorbonne. Rank’s psychological theories and the color theories of Nobel scientist William Ostwald would greatly influence the dazzling murals Hiler would later paint at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse building on the San Francisco waterfront.

A joint project of the City and the WPA, the Streamline Moderne building designed by city architect William Mooser, Jr. broke ground in 1936. Working for the WPA, Hiler was assigned to decorate the interior and exterior of the building and supervised a team of artists, artisans, and crafts workers hired by the Federal Art Project. Hiler’s motifs of fantastical underwater scenes used in his murals are also found in mosaics, terrazzo floors, and friezes throughout the 4-story building.

Color Wheel, Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.

Color Wheel
Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Hiler brought everything he’d learned about color and psychology to his murals in the main lobby. But first he painted on the ceiling of the nearby lounge a 47-foot-color wheel divided into 30 colors and hues. Hiler renamed the room the “Prismatarium,” writing that it functions in relation to the world of color much as a planetarium does for the heavens.

Novelist Henry Miller, a contemporary of Hiler, wrote, “Hilaire lives and breathes color. He is color itself. Sometimes he’s a veritable aurora borealis.”

Just before the art was completed, the City leased the building to a pair of restauranteurs who renamed it “The Aquatic Park Casino” and installed garish-colored furniture among many other violations of Hiler’s design aesthetic. Hiler and all the artists walked off the job. Beniamino Bufano refused to allow his sculptures to be installed. Sargent Johnson, one of only two African-American artists working for the WPA in California, abandoned the 140-foot mosaic he was installing on the veranda. It remains unfinished to this day.

Starfish, Hiler Mural Detail

Starfish
Hiler Mural Detail
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

In a scathing letter to his supervisor, Hiler resigned just days before the park opened on January 22, 1939. He was not seen at the opening ceremonies.

Many of the artists found work at Treasure Island, site of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, where Hiler produced two decorative maps of Pacific nations in the Pacific House. He then worked  for the Army in the Presidio as a color consultant on camouflage, taught briefly at Mills College, founded a school in Los Angeles, relocated it to Santa Fe, and eventually moved to New York City. Toward the end of his life he returned to Paris where he died in 1966.

Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium

“Psychological color chart”
Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

The Aquatic Park building underwent extensive restoration between 2006 and 2009. Restorations of Hiler’s murals and Prismatarium ceiling were completed in 2010.  The building today serves as a maritime museum, the centerpiece of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural, To save time Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installation on the lobby walls.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural
To save time, Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installing the murals on the lobby walls.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Erasing Art and History

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco, Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco
Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

While the nation is transfixed by pitched battles over the removal of artworks representing white supremacy, New Deal murals in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office graphically demonstrate that such cultural melees are nothing new.

Just before World War II, the Treasury Department commissioned Anton Refregier of Woodstock, New York to paint a cycle of murals for the lobby of what was then the San Francisco main post office. “Ref,” as his friends called him, did extensive research for the project before the war but completed the 27 panels after it. They were the last public murals created under the New Deal.

With their vast narrative sweep, the murals are among the largest and arguably greatest New Deal artworks—and they were nearly destroyed for their creator’s audacity.

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier, Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier
Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Instead of the customary triumphal march from heroic pioneers to productive industries that Americans expected to see on their post office walls, Ref chose to paint California’s history as a series of class and racial contests. In one corner of the lobby, Ref depicted Union and Confederate partisans violently duking it out in San Francisco’s Union Square during the Civil War, in a scene not different from recent events in Charlottesville, San Francisco, and Berkeley,

Next to it, Irish workers are shown viciously beating Chinese immigrants they accused of taking jobs such as building the transcontinental railroad, which Ref painted on a facing wall. To show that humane voices speak for common decencies at all times, Ref added at the bottom an 1875 statement by Irish labor leader Frank Roney: “Attacks upon the Chinese I consider unreasonable and antagonistic to the principles of American Liberty.”

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier, Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier
Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Elsewhere in the immense lobby, Ref painted two American settlers raising the Bear Flag proclaiming California’s independence from Mexico. When the Mexican consul objected that the rebels were depicted standing on the Mexican flag they had just lowered, Ref obligingly covered over it in whitewash thin enough that the flag’s colors still dimly show through.

As for the California natives displaced, enslaved, and exterminated in turn by the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, Ref showed the Indians as dignified and intelligent individuals and foregrounded them as the workers who had created the wealth of Mission Dolores.

Ref painted a smiling portrait of the man who had made so much art in public places possible—FDR. But his new bosses in the Truman administration ordered him to remove it. He fought the order for seven months but eventually capitulated, writing that even as early as 1947 “the climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence, peace, and hope of friendship with the Soviet Union in order to see the American people on to the Cold War.”

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier, An argonaut flaunts his find

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier
An argonaut flaunts his find

Conservative critics remained unmollified. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, savaged Ref’s unorthodox murals for their impiety even before he’d finished them so that, he said, he feared for his safety. When the singer and actor Paul Robeson complimented Ref for including an African-American in his panel of wartime shipyard workers, the artist showed Robeson a clipping from the Hearst press captioned “Refregier paints his favorite subject — the Negro.”

Congressman Richard Nixon wrote that as soon as Republicans had taken over the White House and Congress, a committee would be formed to assure “the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.”

On May 1, 1953, with a Congressional majority and Vice President Nixon in office, the House Committee on Public Works held a dramatic day-long trial of both history and art with Refregier’s murals in the dock. San Francisco leaders of both parties defended Ref’s post office murals, as did others around the world. At home in Woodstock, Ref worried that his masterpiece would be removed and that the lobby would then be like what it was when he started: “White walls, without colors, without ideas, ideas that make some people so mad, and so afraid.”

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier, Bloody Thursday, 1934

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier
Bloody Thursday, 1934

However blasphemous his paintings may have seemed to the self-styled patriots at the time, Ref’s brilliant colors and ideas remain on the walls and are now widely recognized as among San Francisco’s greatest—and most truthful — works of public art.

Paint and Politics—the Life and Work of Victor Arnautoff
By Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934
The artist included this self portrait in his “City Life” mural.
Photo Credit: Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff was a prolific artist of public murals during the New Deal, many of which are still in place.

Born in Russia in 1896, Arnautoff was a cavalry officer in WWI and later in the White Siberian army during the Russian Civil War. Escaping into northeastern China, he married and his father-in-law paid for him to attend the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. His first public mural, in 1929, can be seen in the city’s Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.

Arnautoff and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to the famed muralist Diego Rivera. Returning to San Francisco in 1931, Arnautoff gained attention by painting a large fresco mural on his studio wall. He then did several fresco panels at the Palo Alto Clinic that remain on view.

Painting the mural “City Life.”

Painting the mural “City Life.”
San Francisco’s Coit Tower, 1934
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

With the New Deal in 1933, federal funds became available for public art. In San Francisco, the Public Works of Art Project hired 25 artists to create murals at Coit Tower. Arnautoff, highly experienced in fresco technique, was designated technical coordinator of the project. His mural, City Life, completed in 1934, presents a vivid kaleidoscope of downtown San Francisco at a time of economic and social upheaval.

Arnautoff’s next New Deal commission, a large mural in the Protestant chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco, funded by the State Emergency Relief Administration, depicts historical vignettes and contemporary activities at the military base, including the Army’s supervision of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Arnautoff’s political views moved to the left in the mid-1930s, and he sometimes incorporated social criticism into his art. His largest single New Deal commission was thirteen fresco panels on the life of George Washington, painted in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco. Funded by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, the murals present a counter narrative to the high school history texts of the time: the panel on Mount Vernon emphasizes Washington’s dependence on slave labor, and that on the westward “march of the white race” (Arnautoff’s description) shows it taking place over the body of dead Indian.

He exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the 1935 California Pacific Exposition, and the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

 

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco
The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Between 1938 and 1942 Arnautoff completed five Treasury Section post office murals. Those in College Station and Linden, Texas, prominently featured African Americans, rarely depicted in public artworks. His post office murals can still be seen at Linden and at Pacific Grove and South San Francisco, California. Arnautoff’s mural for the Richmond, California, Post Office was recently discovered in a packing crate in the post office’s basement. It is being restored for exhibition in the Richmond Museum of History.

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950
Arnautoff painted this self-portrait opposing HR 9490, the McCarran Internal Security Act. The Act required Communist organizations to register with the U.S. Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board.
Photo Credit: With kind permission of INVA publishing house, Russia

In the 1950s, Arnautoff, while teaching at Stanford, was shunned for his leftist views and was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1963, after the death of his wife, he emigrated to the Soviet Union where he continued to paint and make prints and created three large public murals using mosaic tiles. He died in 1979.

Richmond’s Lost Mural Rediscovered After 40 Years

“Richmond Industrial City,” by Victor Arnautoff,

The Richmond Post Office mural in situ.
“Richmond Industrial City,” by Victor Arnautoff,
Photo Credit: Courtesy Richmond Museum of History

Built in 1938, the art deco Richmond Post Office has long been a center of activity in this once-bustling shipbuilding city on San Francisco Bay. In 2014, the staff at the Richmond Museum of History learned that a mural once graced the post office lobby. “Richmond Industrial City,” by Victor Arnautoff, was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts and installed at the post office in April 1940.

The Russian born Arnatouff, a protégé of Diego Rivera, was perhaps the most prolific muralist in San Francisco in the 1930s. He served as artistic director for the Public Works Administration murals at Coit Tower in nearby San Francisco, and painted the murals for the city’s George Washington High School and the Chapel at the Main Post of the Presidio.

The label on the crate containing the missing mural.

Shipping label
The label on the crate containing the missing mural.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Richmond Museum of History

Records show that when the Richmond post office lobby was remodeled in 1976, a 13 by 7-foot oil-on-canvas mural depicting Richmond’s industrial landmarks, had been carefully removed and crated by art conservator Nathan Zakheim, son of the renowned New Deal artist, Bernard Zakheim. The crate was supposed to be sent to Los Angeles where Nathan would perform needed conservation work, but for reasons unknown the crate was never sent. Eventually, Arnautoff’s mural was listed as “lost” on an endangered mural registry.

Then, in 2015, a janitor found a dusty triangular crate in an unlit room in the Richmond post office basement, a label clearly identifying it as the missing mural. It had been left there, forgotten for nearly forty years.

Staff from the Richmond Museum of History worked for nearly a year to gain permission from the Postal Service to take possession of the crate and have it opened by a conservator, when a water leak flooded the post office basement. The crate, showing a distinct water line, was moved six blocks to the museum where experts were on hand to open it. There was a collective sigh of relief when, upon opening the crate it was revealed that Zakheim, the conservator, had built the crate to hold the canvas on 10-inch stilts. The canvas was dry and in overall good condition.

Close up of Richmond, California Post Office mural.

Restoration needed
Close up of Richmond, California Post Office mural.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Richmond Museum of History

The museum has raised $5,000 of the roughly $30,000 needed to restore the mural and return it to public view. There’s been a recent setback—a restoration expert found lead adhesive stuck to the back of the canvas from the wall where the mural originally hung. Special handling is required to remove the toxic glue. Restoration is underway at the University of California, Santa Barbara. If you would like to contribute to restoring the mural, please contact the museum, (510) 235-7387.

Colorado Springs Saves Its New Deal Murals

City Auditorium, Colorado Springs

City Auditorium, Colorado Springs
Site of newly conserved PWAP murals.

The City Auditorium has served as Colorado Springs favored venue for public events since 1923. In the past, circuses, dance, and music reigned in the Classical Revival building. In recent years it has played host to cat shows, wrestling, and psychic fairs.

In 1934, under the Public Works of Art (PWAP) section of FDR’s New Deal, Boardman Robinson, the Southwest Coordinator of New Deal Art, and city officials selected two artists to paint lunette murals in the auditorium’s foyer. Both murals were to represent the focus and purpose of the public building.

Both artists were members of the Broadmoor Art Academy, an early oasis of art and culture in Colorado Springs. It was academy instructor George Biddle who wrote to his former classmate at Groton, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proposing a program for artist relief. Many of the academy’s instructors and students were soon hired under New Deal art programs to paint murals.

The Arts mural by Tabor Utley

The Arts Mural by Tabor Utley
One of two recently conserved murals in the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs.

Tabor Utley taught landscape painting at the academy. His lunette at City Auditorium depicts the performing arts—dance, theatre, orchestral music, and a gospel choir. Facing it is a lunette painted by Utley’s student, Missourian Archie Musick. “Hard Rock Miners,” is Musick’s first major mural. It depicts the history of the area—gold mining and the cultural environment that the industry supported. Musick went on to paint New Deal murals at post offices in Red Cloud, Nebraska and Manitou Springs, Colorado.

When City Auditorium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, the murals were in bad shape, suffering from cracks in the plaster, moisture in the walls, and layers of accumulated smoke and grime.

Unfortunately, conservation was a low priority given the City’s budget and there was confusion about who was responsible for the care of the murals.

In 1998, Archie’s daughter, artist Pat Musick, and I decided to take on the conservation project ourselves. The then-director of the building became our third mover and shaker.

Hardrock Miners by Archie Musick

Hardrock Miners by Archie Musick
One of two recently conserved murals in the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs.

Through much networking, fundraising, and lobbying, we were on our way to getting the City to be our partner. Our efforts led to a grassroots campaign, “A New Deal for the New Deal of Southern Colorado.” The Pikes Peak Arts Council became our fiscal sponsor, which enabled us to apply for grants not available to the City. We managed to secure funding from two local organizations, The El Pomar Foundation and the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado.

We raised $10,000, which the City matched, to hire a local conservator. A lab analysis confirmed that both murals were painted in oil. Conservation began in early 2004 to stabilize, consolidate, and clean them. The restoration included new lighting and a Data Logger to monitor environmental conditions.

We held a public unveiling of the newly conserved murals, and received an award from the Arts, Business, and Education Consortium. We were invited to the annual Saving Places conference in Denver, hosted by Colorado Preservation, Inc, and were surprised to find our project on the cover of the conference issue of their magazine.