The move to “whitewash” the murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco is symptomatic of America’s historical amnesia. Whether it be slavery, genocide against Native Americans and continuing through the Vietnam War, America thinks it can just paint over its violent history.
In Germany, the Nazi era will never be forgotten. Museums, memorials, literature can be found throughout the country as a reminder of the Nazi reign and its genocide against Jews, Communists, Gypsies, Gays and the opposition in general. Liz Heidhues and I spent time at The Topography of Terror in Berlin last September. It is a graphic and depressing presentation of Hitler’s rise to power.
Photo above – Topography of Terror, Berlin September 2018
Excerpted from San Francisco Chronicle 4.8.2019
It was 1936 when the Works Progress Administration commissioned Victor Arnautoff, a Russian artist, to paint the the Washington mural in the newly built school in the city’s Richmond neighborhood. It was one of many pieces of public art created in San Francisco as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal employment projects.
Arnautoff painted the Washington scenes directly on wet plaster and in the social realist style of his mentor, Mexican artist Diego Rivera. At the time, “Life of Washington” was considered something of a subversive work, illustrating enslavement and slaughter, Golinger said.
Victor Arnautoff would later teach art at Stanford, where he survived calls to fire him in 1955 for a satirical caricature of Vice President Richard Nixon called “Dix McSmear,” which associated Nixon with McCarthyism and prompted Arnautoff’s interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. A longtime member of the Communist Party, he returned to the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s and died in Leningrad in 1979.
For 84 years, San Francisco high school students have walked to class past the scenes of black slaves picking cotton and white settlers urged on by George Washington stepping over a dead American Indian.
To some, the historic mural on a wall at George Washington High is offensive and especially inappropriate for children — so much so that it should be destroyed. But others see an important piece laden with subversive commentary, reminding viewers of the first president’s role in slavery and the death of American Indians during westward expansion.
Over the years, calls to remove the controversial work, “Life of Washington” by Victor Arnautoff, have failed. Yet a renewed effort has momentum, winning the backing of many students, the Board of Education president and a community task force that has called on the district to cover the Depression-era art with white paint.