By Matt Gonzalez
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 that 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 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 otherness necessary 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.
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.
Matt Gonzalez is chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and a former president of the Board of Supervisors.