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.