Art imitating life is commonplace, and often the defining quality in good art is that, while life moves on, the imitation depicted, sculpted or drawn remains relevant.
Victor Arnautoff, a Russian painter and art professor working in the Bay Area for more than two decades, represents this defining artistic quality quite well.
According to Professor Emeritus of history Robert Cherny, author of “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art,” Arnautoff grew up in Russia and fought for the losing white army during the Bolshevik revolution. After fleeing his homeland, he made his way to the states and began a lengthy art career. He worked briefly with Diego Rivera in Mexico and eventually helped him with the famous Coit Tower murals before eventually returning to his homeland before his death in 1979.
Throughout his life, Arnautoff progressively swung more towards leftist politics. Although Russia’s white army was staunchly against the communist uprising of the time, Arnautoff progressively moved left politically as he worked with Rivera and watched the worker’s strikes of the ‘30s.
Catherine Powell, director of the labor archives and research center, noted his prominent and frequent depictions of working class people.
“Arnautoff definitely did an enormous amount of research, talked to the local people,” she said. “He included working class people in his murals – the Richmond mural is a perfect example of that.”
Powell mentioned the murals of San Francisco’s own George Washington High School as another example of Arnautoff’s depiction of the working class.
“He did these incredible murals, and they tell the story of George Washington … Washington isn’t in the center, he’s to the side. Who’s in the center? It’s the slaves,” she said. “He has slaves, which nobody talks about in the ‘30s.”
The mural depicts the Founding Fathers pointing West with a notable artistic difference: It features explorers moving West, but they’re doing so over the body of a dead Indigenous person. “I’m surprised that nobody objected to that at the time because, again, it was the idea that this was empty land that they just moved into, rather than this was built on the genocide of a people,” Powell said.
Cherny also spoke about Arnautoff’s repeated depiction of the working class. “I think he was always interested in telling a human story in his work … In a number of his works on paper as you’ll see there, he depicts working people. That’s clearly a choice of his.”
The honest commentary of both American politics and American history is a driving factor in the gallery exhibition. “There’s one print there [in the exhibition] of Harriet Tubman … My guess is that that work was done in the late 1940s, which is a time that the modern civil rights movement … was only in its preliminary stages.”
Cherny elaborated to say, “The Communist party, which Arnautoff had joined before that, had always focused a certain amount of its attention on the issues facing African Americans, a disadvantaged and often oppressed people within the United States.”
The narrative of equity was a focus of Arnautoff’s in a number of works, including his portrait of Harriet Tubman, according to Cherny. “By doing his print of Harriet Tubman, Arnautoff was drawing upon history and was announcing that, ‘Here is a really important figure from American history that has often been overlooked, but I’m not going to overlook her…’”
Tim James, a San Francisco resident and former book binder, visited the exhibit early last week and was notably struck by the working class representation. He had been to the Coit Tower and was familiar with Arnautoff’s work. “This period of political socialist new deal art is some of my favorite.”
James, self-described as “college educated but working class,” owned and operated Taurus Bookbindery for many years before eventually shutting down. As he put it, the closure was due to a lack of employee housing rather than a lack of business.
Arnautoff’s depiction of the working class speaks to James, both personally and politically. His work is steeped in current affairs commentary. Although these events are long passed, for James, Cherny, Powell and other fans, that is part of what makes Arnautoff relevant until today. While the characters may change, the themes don’t.
“This is what Trump talks about but not what Trump is,” James said. “Today, a lot of people talk about the working class, on both sides, but rarely interact with them beyond a handshake after a forty minute speech.”