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Victor Michail Arnautoff
"Motion, " Victor Arnautoff, San Francisco Lighthouse, World's Fair WPA Painting

1939

About the Item

Victor Mikhail Arnautoff (1896 - 1979) Motion (Mile Rocks Lighthouse), San Francisco, 1939 Oil and tempera on board 60 x 40 inches Signed lower left Provenance: The artist California School of Fine Arts (CFSA) John & Lynne Bolen Fine Arts, Huntington Beach, California Exhibited: New York, World's Fair, Exhibition of Contemporary American Art, 1939. San Francisco Museum of Art, 1962. Literature: American Art from the New York World's Fair 1939, Poughkeepsie, 1987, no. 11, p. 41, illustrated. Robert W. Cherny, Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art, Urbana, Illinois, 2017. The lighthouse in the distance is the Mile Rocks Lighthouse in San Francisco Bay, built in 1906 after many shipwrecks made the lighthouse necessary. In 1962 the lighthouse was reduced in size to make room for a helipad. Arnautoff was the son of a Russian Orthodox priest. He showed a talent for art from an early age and hoped to study art after graduating from the gymnasium in Mariupol. With the outbreak of World War I, he enrolled in the Yelizavetgrad Cavalry School. He went on to hold military leadership positions in the army of Nicholas II and the White Siberian army. With the defeat of the Whites in Siberia, he crossed into northeastern China and surrendered his weapons. Arnautoff remained in China for five years. He again tried to pursue art, but was impoverished and took a position training the cavalry of the warlord Zhang Zuolin. He met and married Lydia Blonsky and they had two sons, Michael and Vasily. In November 1925 Arnautoff went to San Francisco on a student visa to study at the California School of Fine Arts. There he studied sculpture with Edgar Walter and painting with several instructors. His wife and children joined him, and they all continued to Mexico in 1929, where, on Ralph Stackpole's recommendation, Arnautoff took up a position as muralist Diego Rivera's assistant. Rivera and Arnautoff first worked on a series of murals at the Palace of Cortés, Cuernavaca. After starting the murals in the National Palace, Rivera went to San Francisco to paint a mural in the new Stock Exchange building, leaving Arnautoff in charge for a time. A third son, Jacob, was born in Mexico. In 1931, the family returned to San Francisco, and Arnautoff completed his first mural commission for the Palo Alto Medical Clinic in Palo Alto (where he had been a patient) in 1932. The unveiling of this mural caused a traffic jam and some controversy, in part because the mural showed a doctor examining a female patient whose bare breasts were at eye-level. Like his other works in the Bay Area, the murals were frescoes. In 1934 Arnautoff was chosen to execute one of the murals at Coit Tower in San Francisco, with funding from the Public Works of Art Project. He was also appointed technical director of the Coit Tower murals project. His work is prominently represented there by a mural depicting San Francisco city life. This mural includes a self-portrait as well as a portrait of his son, Michael. This mural too caused some controversy at the time, because the newsstand Arnautoff portrayed excluded the conservative San Francisco Chronicle yet included left-wing newspapers. It also included other references to the "lack of concern" people show each other, including a sign for Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights", which is concerned in part with the same theme. Arnautoff was perhaps the most prolific muralist in San Francisco in the 1930s, completing not only the murals at the Palo Alto Clinic and Coit Tower, but also at the Presidio chapel, George Washington High School (which depicted slavery and a dead Native American), and the California School of Fine Arts library. All of these murals were focused on humanist themes, including concerns about class, labor, and power. He also painted five post offices (College Station, TX; Linden, TX; Pacific Grove, CA; Richmond, CA; and South San Francisco, CA), and held solo exhibitions throughout the 1930s. Arnautoff taught sculpture and fresco painting privately and at the California School of Fine Arts, first during summer sessions and as a regular instructor beginning in 1936. He taught art at Stanford University from 1938 to 1962, where Richard Diebenkorn was one of his students. Beginning in 1947, he also taught art courses at the California Labor School, including printmaking. Beginning around the time his association with Rivera, Arnautoff's political views moved to the left, and he joined the Communist Party, as well as the American Artists' Congress and the San Francisco Artists and Writers Union. His style was generally more subtle than Rivera's and other social realists, but his politics were nevertheless reflected in his work, which has been described as being part of a mural arts movement that "hoped to inspire change through criticism of the present political system". In 1955, an Arnautoff lithograph titled "DIX McSmear," associating Vice President Richard Nixon with McCarthyism, created controversy. As a result, there were calls for Stanford to dismiss him. (The lithograph was then used as the cover for an issue of The Nation.) After he was interrogated by a HUAC subcommittee, there were again calls for Stanford to dismiss him. However, the faculty committee that reviewed his case declined to make such a recommendation to the president, and Arnautoff remained a faculty member. Following the death of his wife in 1961, Arnautoff retired from Stanford. He returned to the Soviet Union in 1963, settling in Mariupol, Ukraine, where he had attended gymnasium. While living there, he published a memoir, and created large tile mosaics on public buildings, including a school and a communications building. He also did woodcuts for books, and had several solo exhibitions. He remarried in 1970 and died in Leningrad on March 22, 1979.
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