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Both Sides|Diego Rivera Protégé Victor Arnautoff Mural Saved from Oblivion

  • Diario de Xalapa
  • en Cultura

By Eileen Sullivan20

 

Arnautoff was, in fact, unrestricted by WPA guidelines on choice of theme. When he returned to the US and continued painting, however, he needed to be somewhat discreet about his political views, (During the McCarthy witch hunt years, there was an unsuccessful attempt to eject him from the faculty of Stanford owing to his socialist art.) The visual clues to his ideology can easily be missed.  Why? Because his work often includes whimsical, humorous detail, such as self-portraits and inclusions of occasional visitors to the site (a man who stopped by each day while walking his dog!).

If you examine the Richmond mural, you will see that one side portrays a quiet town and ordinary citizens; in the background, the transition to industrial city is shown– a freight train passes by oil tanks and a refinery spouts black smoke. On the right hand side Arnautoff depicts four dock workers on their lunch break, perhaps discussing their concerns as members of the epic-making longshoremen’s union. They can be identified by the pins on their hats. One of the four workers is black — a gesture toward the fact that the local longshoremen’s union was one of the first to promote an a racially integrated workforce

The Longshoremen’s Union changed the lives of dock workers by holding a 1934 strike also portrayed by Arnautoff. When authorities covered his representation of the strike, he marched in protest. The longshoremen’s leader of 40 years, Harry Bridges, is also elsewhere portrayed by  Arnautoff.

In the end, curator McCrary short-circuited Post Office bureaucracy to recover the endangered 10 x 20 oil on canvas mural.  With the help of a museum board member, she tracked down a former janitor and they surreptitiously unearthed the carefully boxed mural which had been shuffled into the basement and then forgotten.  Unable to remove the mural without authorization, McCrary faced a long negotiation and then a terrible scare when the Post Office basement was flooded.  Fortunately, the fact that it had been mounted on stilts within the box saved the mural from damage. A copy of the mural is now on display in San Francisco State University, and the original awaits restoration.  Where? In the basement of the Richmond History Museum!

 

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