Mural Critiquing Slavery, Manifest Destiny Draws Controversy in San Francisco

A WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff depicting slave ownership is part of a new controversy at George Washington High School in San Francisco. (Courtesy George Washington High School Alumni Association)

A Great Depression-era mural depicting George Washington as a slave owner and promoter of the United States’ genocidal westward expansion is the latest public artwork to draw controversy in San Francisco.

Life of Washington, a 13-panel fresco by Russian-born painter Victor Arnautoff, has greeted visitors to the lobby of George Washington High School in the Outer Richmond district since 1936. Now it’s complicating a nationwide referendum on public monuments to past exploitation.

Two panels of the Works Progress Administration-funded mural are primarily at issue: One shows Washington among his slaves at Mount Vernon, while in another, the country's first president directs white men with guns westward, over the body of an apparently slain Native American. Artaunoff, a committed communist, intended the artwork as a corrective rebuke to the United States’ origin story.

Opponents of the mural, including the school board president and students, say it offensively shows oppressed minorities in an undignified light. Their criticism echoes activists’ successful call last year to remove “Early Days,” a statue depicting a Native American kneeling beneath a Spanish colonizer, from the Pioneer Monument sculptural group near San Francisco City Hall.

But supporters of the mural, including the George Washington High School Alumni Association and art scholars and critics, argue that Life of Washington clearly critiques, instead of glorifies, colonization and racism. Arnautoff’s “daring murals,” wrote New Deal scholar Gray Brechin, “depict the father of our country as also being the father of a genocide later claimed by the victors as Manifest Destiny.”

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Brechin noted that Anton Refregier, another Russian-born leftist painter, received intense pushback for his relatively tame handling of similar themes in his Rincon Annex Post Office mural. Life of Washington is “so contrary to the national mythology of the time that I have often wondered how the artist got away with such criticism in a public place,” Brechin wrote.

A WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff depicting slave ownership and Native American genocide is part of a new controversy at George Washington High School in San Francisco.
A WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff depicting slave ownership and Native American genocide is part of a new controversy at George Washington High School in San Francisco. (George Washington High School Alumni Association)

But some students at George Washington, speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, criticized the imagery as unavoidable and distressing, regardless of the artist’s intentions. San Francisco Board of Education President Stevon Cook has asked the superintendent to determine the cost of removing Life of Washington by the end of the school year in May.

Officials have also proposed changing the name of George Washington High School. Last year the school board cited the two panels in its rejection of a proposal to pursue landmark status for the building. The board then convened an 11-person "Reflection and Action Panel," which recommended painting over or otherwise removing the entire mural.

Alumni association Vice President Lope Yap Jr., a Marin filmmaker and 1970 graduate, was a dissenting panelist. He said he sympathizes with students who have a "viscerally negative" reaction to the mural, but supports an alternative that obscures the disturbing panels.

"I'm not trying to criticize anyone's emotional pain," he said. "Where we part is the recommendation to whitewash or permanently remove the murals."

Yap Jr. and the alumni association instead propose installing screening over the two panels “to prevent inadvertent viewing,” placing didactic plaques to clarify the artist’s intent, and complementing Life of Washington with new, prominently installed murals positively depicting Native Americans.

In a statement, the alumni association called Life of Washington a “radical and critical" artwork. “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.”

Life of Washington's depiction of black people as slaves has long been controversial. In the 1960s, students pressured the school district to commission new murals by the black painter Dewey Crumpler; his Multi-Ethnic Heritage: Black, Asian, Native/Latin American works, completed in 1974,  show empowered minority figures.

Arnautoff, who studied under Diego Rivera, also contributed artwork to the lobby of Coit Tower and several post offices in California. He was a Stanford University art professor from 1938-1962. In 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee unsuccessfully sought to oust him from the teaching post because of his communist political beliefs.

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