Life of Washington (murals)

From Censorpedia

Arnautoff, Life of Washington.jpg

Artist: Victor Arnautoff

Year: 1936

Date of Action: December 2018-June 2019

Region: North America

Location: San Francisco, CA

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Painting, Public Art

Confronting Bodies: San Francisco Board of Education

Description of Artwork: “Life of Washington” is a mural comprising thirteen panels in fresco on the life of George Washington that depict him in both real and imagined scenarios. It was painted by Russian-American painter and Stanford professor of art Victor Arnautoff in the 1930s (with assistance from artists George Harris and Gorden Langdon) and completed in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco.

Funded by the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Art Project, the murals were Arnautoff’s largest New Deal commission and one of the largest ensembles of New Deal artworks at a single site. Arnautoff was a well-known muralist, having painted other WPA funded projects including murals at Coit Tower where he was Technical Director of the project.

Arnautoff presented the murals as a counter-narrative to high school history texts of the time. The murals depicted Washington's dependence on slave labor, his role in Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion, and the “march of the white race” (in Arnautoff’s words). In one panel Washington is depicted pointing westward over the body of dead Native American.

Arnautoff's political views were influenced by Diego Rivera, for whom he worked as an assistant while living in Mexico. His style is considered more subtle than Rivera's and that of other social realists of the period. Later he joined the Communist Party, the American Artists' Congress and the San Francisco Artists and Writers Union. His politics were reflected in his work, which was part of the mural arts movement intended to inspire change through criticism of the current political system.

Two of the mural panels have come under fire since the 1960’s for their depictions of African Americans and Native Americans. For decades, activists have called for their removal.

The Incident: In December 2018, George Washington High School was denied landmark status specifically due to the two panels containing offensive content. The high school is part of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and under the jurisdiction of the Board of Education. The Board was divided about the school’s application for landmark status because designating it as such would make it impossible to modify or remove the murals afterwards.

The SFUSD created a 13-member “Reflection and Action Group” to provide a recommendation to the Board. In February 2019, after four public meetings, they issued their final recommendation to remove the entire series of murals from the school.

The George Washington High School Alumni Association GWHSAA) launched a campaign to keep the 83-year-old murals intact. The alumni proposed adding interpretive panels to give them historical context and to also document how they have been experienced by Native American, African American, and other students of color.

The story was extensively covered in both local and national media. Those who would censor the work cited its depiction of slavery and the murder of a Native American as traumatizing to some students of color. Others, including NCAC and the leaders of four of San Francisco’s top visual arts institutions, argued that it is an artistic and historical treasure that does not celebrate the life of George Washington uncritically, but rather depicts him as complicit in slavery and the violent pursuit of America’s “Manifest Destiny.”

Results of Incident: On June 25, 2019, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to remove/paint over the murals. But in early August, after months of public pressure, the Board nullified their vote:

"In a compromise that did not appear to end the fight, the San Francisco Board of Education voted Tuesday night to conceal, but not destroy, a series of Depression-era school murals that some considered offensive to Native Americans and African-Americans.

"The 4-to-3 vote, which came after a tense and emotional meeting, nullified the board’s earlier vote to paint over the murals, a decision that had brought widespread complaints of censorship." (NYTimes, August 14, 2019)




Aug. 25, 2019 Feinstein on SF mural flap: Don’t destroy it, don’t cover it up

Aug. 21, 2019 Alice Walker Defends George Washington Murals “Why try to hide the reality of our history?” she said of the objectionable images that confronted San Francisco students every day.

August 14, 2019 San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals The vote, which came after a tense meeting, nullified an earlier vote to paint over Depression-era school murals that some considered offensive to minorities.

August 12, 2019 Actor Danny Glover Opposes Washington High Mural Removal; Calls Plan ‘A Book Burning’

Aug. 7, 2019 Hundreds of people flood SF school to see mural slated for destruction

August 6, 2019 San Francisco NAACP Leaders Call For Preservation Of Controversial School Mural

Aug 2, 2019 Voters may decide whether to save or destroy historic murals Locals push to preserve controversial 1936 WPA art at SF high school

Aug. 1, 2019 More than 100 people flood SF school to see mural slated for destruction Nanette Asimov

July 31 2019 The Shame of the Mural Censors — Why Art and History Matter By DeWitt Cheng

July 27, 2019 The Case for Keeping San Francisco’s Disputed George Washington Murals Exposure to art — even uncomfortable art — is healthy, stimulating, and worthy of students’ debate. ROBERTA SMITH

July 27, 2019 Screaming match erupts over vote to remove Washington mural at San Francisco high school - CNN Video

July 25, 2019 PD Editorial: Don’t destroy San Francisco school’s Washington mural

July 25, 2019 PD Editorial: Don’t destroy San Francisco school’s Washington mural

JULY 2019 Destroying Antiracist Art Will Not End Racism BY AQSA AHMAD

JULY 23, 2019 Whitewashing American History: the WPA Mural Controversy in San Francisco by JACK HEYMAN

JULY 22, 2019 Move to erase George Washington mural sparks firestorm among Dems By CARLA MARINUCCI

San Francisco Highschool Pledges to Paint Over Washington Mural By Victor Westerkamp

July 15, 2019 Mural supporters plan 2020 ballot measure to protect controversial fresco at Washington High

NCAC Op-Ed July 12, 2019 Open Forum: SF school board need not be a regime that destroys art By Svetlana Mintcheva


Professor Dewey Crumpler Defends GWHS Murals GWHS Alumni Assn SF CA Art Professor Dewey Crumpler defends Victor Arnautoff's (WPA/PWA 1936) Murals and discusses how the Arnautoff murals relate to his [Crumpler's] 1974 murals, and vice versa, at George Washington High School (San Francisco, California). We must face, not erase, America’s dark history. Censorship is never acceptable. - GWHS Alumni Association

June 26, 2019 San Francisco school board votes to destroy controversial Washington High mural Jill Tucker

SF school board votes to destroy circa 1936 mural “No one has the right to tell us as native people—or our young people who walk those halls everyday—how they feel”

SFUSD Approves Covering Controversial George Washington High School Mural

June 25, 2019 Bay Area art leaders on censorship of George Washington High mural The controversial mural will see its fate decided during a Tuesday evening school board meeting

School board votes to paint over historic high school mural Alumni have threatened to sue over removal of frescoes depicting slavery, death of Native Americans

June 24, 2019 Open Forum: The San Francisco School Board is flunking history By Lope Yap Jr.

June 20, 2019 High school mural debate a reminder that destroying art destroys our culture

June 19, 2019 Activists want a racist San Francisco high school mural removed

June 17, 2019 Fate of controversial SF high school mural down to three options

June 15, 2019 National Coalition Against Censorship Urges Retaining Washington Murals

June 10 2019 Activists want a high school mural removed. Should its impact today overshadow the artist's intentions?

MAY 13, 2019 David and Art - "High School Mural" By BRODIE BASHAW

May 7, 2019 9:00 p.m Feds could weigh in on fight over preservation of historic mural SFUSD working group favors removal of controversial Washington High School fresco

May 3, 2019 High School May Remove George Washington Mural that 'Traumatizes Students and Community Members'

Apr 15, 2019 STUDENT OPINION Should School Murals That Depict an Ugly History Be Removed?

April 11, 2019 These High School Murals Depict an Ugly History. Should They Go? By Carol Pogash

April 9, 2019 Historic WPA murals at George Washington High School are facing destruction due to controversial depictions of Native Americans and African-Americans

April 8, 2019 Critics say mural depicting slavery, Native Americans at a San Francisco high school is offensive

Offensive or important? Debate flares anew over SF school mural depicting slavery

April 2, 2019 Washington High Alumni Push to Keep Dubious Mural A mural showing colonizers stepping over a dead Native American has long been controversial, but an alumni group is fighting to save it.


Photo by Amanda Law