Press release from the George Washington High School Alumni Association:
Preserve the Murals: Enlighten or Erase?
Serious threat of censorship to historic leftist art in lobby of public high school.
SAN FRANCISCO: One of the largest and most significant WPA murals in San Francisco faces destruction within the next few months. The 1600-square foot fresco Life of Washington that has decorated the entry of George Washington High School for 84 years may soon be painted over if a group of parents and Native American activists prevails. This group perceives parts of the mural, which depict slavery and the systemic eradication of Indians during the United States’ westward expansion, as derogatory and threatening, and have asked that the entire mural be obliterated. The S.F. Board of Education will decide the murals’ fate at one of their next meetings.
Background: A 2018 proposal to designate George Washington High School as a S.F. landmark was denied by the San Francisco Board of Education because of alleged derogatory images in two panels of the large mural suite in the school’s entry. As a result of the landmark denial and complaints from one parent, the Board of Education convened an 11-person Reflection & Action Panel which met four times over three months. Despite expert testimony that the murals were intended to depict Washington’s mixed legacy—including slavery and the genocidal westward movement—the panel voted to recommend to the Board of Education that the entire mural suite be destroyed. Solutions were offered but rejected; the only solution acceptable to most Panel members is the complete and permanent destruction of not only the two panels in question, but the 11 other panels in the mural suite as well.
The Association proposes the following solutions to address the concerns raised:
• Screen the two panels in question to prevent inadvertent viewing, a solution used in a similar situation in Washington, D.C.
• Place interpretive panels to clarify the murals’ intent and document how they have been experienced by Native American, African American, and other students of color, as has been done in a similar situation in New York.
• Develop a site-specific curriculum on contemporary issues related to the Native American experience.
• Create new murals in prominent locations with positive portrayals of Native Americans including San Francisco’s Ramaytush Yelamu Ohlone tribe.
The controversy is ironic, considering the background and intentions of the artist. Russian emigré Victor Arnautoff attended the California School of Fine Arts, studied under Diego Rivera, and joined the Communist Party. He was appointed Technical Director for Coit Tower’s murals with early New Deal funding. Other Arnautoff works are in the S.F. Presidio’s Main Post Chapel, the California School of Fine Arts library, and five post offices in California and Texas. He was an art professor at Stanford University from 1938 to 1962, weathering interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee in their 1955 campaign to have him removed from the Stanford faculty.
Arnautoff was commissioned to decorate George Washington High School and funding was secured from the WPA. After extensive research, Arnautoff painted 13 panels using the rare buon fresco process, painting with earth-tone pigments directly on wet plaster so that the paintings became an integral part of the walls. At the time it was created, this work was the largest WPA-funded single-artist mural suite on the Pacific Coast.
As Arnautoff’s ideas turned leftward, he increasingly used his art to highlight current and past injustices in the American system. This is clear in the two at-issue panels at George Washington High School, “Mount Vernon” and “Westward Vision.”
“Mount Vernon” depicts George Washington and another Caucasian man in a barn or work room as three Caucasian and six African men perform various tasks. Through a window two African men are seen loading large bales onto a ship; another window overlooks four African women picking cotton. This is a factual depiction of the oppression of enslaved Africans by European and American Colonists and unblinkingly depicts George Washington as a slave-owner, a radical thing to do in 1936.
The allegorical “Westward Vision” features Benjamin Franklin and two other Founding Fathers gathered around a map as Washington points west. To his right, as if obeying his command, several 1800s-era Caucasian men head west above the body of a Native American man, signifying the genocide of Native life and culture. The frontiersmen are painted in shades of grey, setting them apart from every other figure in the mural suite; they look abstract. At bottom right a frontiersman and Native American chief (possibly the Mandan people of the Upper Missouri Valley) sit at a campfire smoking a peace pipe. On the ground at the chief’s feet is a tomahawk, symbolizing the disarming of Native tribes. Directly above the headdress is a broken tree limb representing broken treaties made by the U.S. government and broken promises made by settlers. The backdrop of circa 1935 metropolis San Francisco suggests that San Francisco, and the rest of the West, was built on conquest and enslavement.
This is a radical and critical work of art. There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical, and educational value. Whitewashing them will simply result in another “whitewash” of the full truth about American history.
More Background: This issue arose before. In 1968–69, demands to obliterate the murals were turned into a positive by the creation of three new murals by Dewey Crumpler depicting Latin Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans overcoming oppression. These murals were installed in 1974.
Censorship of public art is a recurring threat. During the anti-Communist purges of the 1940s and ’50s, the murals painted by Anton Refregier in the downtown Rincon Annex Post Office came under attack from the right. At that time, future San Francisco Mayor John Shelley testified before U.S. Congress in support of Refregier, saying: “The cold factual portrayal of history…may be pleasing to some and repugnant to others, but if it is factual you cannot change history or a picture of history or a portrayal of it by saying ‘But I do not like that.’”
The George Washington High School Alumni Association has launched a campaign to save the murals and illuminate their true meaning. This campaign is called Save the Murals: Enlighten, Not Erase. The alumni community has been mobilized; a mail campaign and petition of support are in full swing. The GWHSAA has presented a formal statement to Board of Education Commissioners and the Superintendent of Schools, urging that the murals be kept in place. They have received supportive statements from influential members of minority communities (including a highly respected Choctaw leader who was part of the 1969–71 occupation of Alcatraz), the artist’s biographer, and art and architectural experts. We anticipate that the recommendation of the Reflection and Action Panel will be presented to the Board of Education in mid-April. The time for saving these beautiful, significant, and educational murals is short!
About GWHS. Top-ranked comprehensive public high school George Washington, atop a hill in the Outer Richmond with a majestic view of the Golden Gate and Marin Headlands, was designed by architect Timothy Pflueger and opened in August 1936. Notable alums include Maya Angelou, Johnny Mathis, U.S. Senator John Burton, actor & activist Danny Glover, Miss America & actress Lee Meriwether, three S.F. police chiefs, Olympic Gold Medalist Ann Curtis Cuneo, Jefferson Airplane co-founder Marty Balin, American Airlines Flight 11 attendant Betty Ong, and NFL Hall of Famer Ollie Matson.
About the GWHS Alumni Association. The GWHSAA (sfgwhsalumni.org) was formed in 1952. The 18-member Board of Directors and Executive Director receive no compensation. The Alumni Association gives grants for unfunded classroom supplies & student activities and over 20 scholarships to college-bound graduating students, all thanks to the support of its membership of over 6,000: alumni from 1938 to 2018, former faculty and staff, and friends of GWHS.
GWHS Alumni Association
600 32nd Ave., San Francisco, CA 94121–2733
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