H-Net Review [H-California]:  Coffey on Cherny, 'Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art'

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Robert W. Cherny.  Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.  Urbana 
University of Illinois Press, 2017.  360 pp. Ill.  $36.95 (paper),
ISBN 978-0-252-08230-6.

Reviewed by Mary K. Coffey (Dartmouth College)
Published on H-California (January, 2020)
Commissioned by Khal Schneider

Art, Censorship, and Exile: The Life of Victor Arnautoff

For much of 2019 a debate raged in San Francisco over calls for the
destruction of Victor Arnautoff's mural, _The Life of George
Washington_, painted in 1936 in George Washington High School. The
mural, like the school, was a New Deal project. It narrates episodes
from the founder's life while also acknowledging slavery and Native
American genocide. These national sins are depicted in vignettes that
show black figures picking cotton and shucking corn or an indigenous
man being trod upon by white settlers. As Robert W. Cherny, the
author of _Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art_, argues, the
mural offers a surprisingly explicit "counter-narrative" to period
accounts of Washington's life (p. 109). 

Critics in the 1930s praised the mural and made no mention of this
counternarrative. But in 1968, when Arnautoff's granddaughter was at
the school, students initiated the first call for its removal. What
for Arnautoff was a radical gesture, was for black students a
reminder of their lack of historical and symbolic agency. As Daryll
Thomas, the head of the school's Afro-American club, argued: "sure we
picked cotton, that's part of our history, but we would also like
some recognition of the great contributions of black people to the
sciences and industry" (p. 219). The solution was to commission local
artist Dewey Crumpler to execute a new mural on the theme of black
achievement. This worked until 2019 when new protests, led by First
Nations students, parents, and activists, alleged that the mural's
imagery compounds the violence that students of color already endure.
Arnautoff's indigenous victim, it seems, has become a favorite
meeting place for their peers, who casually invite one another to
"meet by the dead Indian." 

The current call for destruction was heeded by the school board,
sparking a culture war that garnered national media attention.
Liberals and conservatives alike decry the "cancel culture"
motivating this decision.[1] As a consequence, it has been placed on
hold. In the process, Arnautoff is in the spotlight after years of
relative obscurity. And Cherny himself has become a protagonist in
the battle to save the mural. Therefore, Cherny's biography,
published in 2017, arrives at an opportune moment. For Arnautoff's
life offers a unique lens through which to view the twists and turns
of progressive politics over time. In the 1930s, his communism
rendered him a progressive; in the 1950s, it branded him a
subversive. It counts for little among today's progressives but
serves as a cudgel for pundits who rail against what they view as the
new McCarthyism at play in battles over history, racism, and public
art. For liberals, Arnautoff's communism means his mural cannot be
impugned. They argue that the protestors need to be educated about
his life, and that if they knew him better, they would realize that
he was on their side. For conservatives, his communism is invoked to
skewer the Left, which according to them is so out of control that it
is eating its own.

Cherny's biography provides some perspective. It reveals how complex
Arnautoff's relationship to communism actually was. It also shows
that his art was often at the center of debates over censorship.
Cherny begins with Arnautoff's birth in 1896, in Mariupol, a village
in a province of what is now southeastern Ukraine. And he ends with
his death, in 1979, in Leningrad at the age of eighty-three. The
chapters are organized chronologically according to key phases in the
artist's life as he moved from Mariupol to China, Mexico, the United
States, and back to Ukraine under Soviet rule. His personal fate is
set against the backdrop of major world events, from the Treaty of
Portsmouth and outbreak of World War I to the civil wars that wracked
Russia, China, and Mexico to the Great Depression, the Popular Front,
and outbreak of World War II, and finally, McCarthyism and the Cold
War. Cherny traces Arnautoff's political evolution from a
pseudo-aristocratic cavalry officer in the tsar's army to a member of
the Communist Party (CP) and finally, an obdurate defender of the
Soviet Union. Drawing upon the artist's autobiography, interviews
with surviving family members, personal correspondence, the artist's
FBI file, and other archival resources, Cherny builds a comprehensive
account of Arnautoff's achievements. And while Arnautoff's character
comes through, this is not a psychological portrait. Rather, the real
strengths of this biography lie in Cherny's ability to illuminate the
impersonal events of political history through Arnautoff's life, and
to a lesser extent, his art. 

For historians of California, Cherny provides valuable information
about San Francisco in the boom years of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, its
immigrant and working-class communities, burgeoning institutions and
art scene, major industrial, civic, and proletarian leaders, and its
role in both the New Deal's public works and McCarthy-era witch
hunts. Another attribute is Cherny's chronicle of the growth and
collapse of communist organizations in San Francisco, which is a
subset of his survey of the city's growing Russian immigrant
community during these years. Finally, in his account of Arnautoff's
battles with McCarthyism, Cherny reconstructs one of the more
eloquent, and successful, self-defenses mounted by a communist during
this shameful episode in US history. 

While Cherny surveys Arnautoff's development as an artist, his
discussion of individual works of art is brief. As he notes in the
introduction, this is not a work of art history. Therefore, readers
looking for analysis of Arnautoff's murals, paintings, prints, and
drawings will find little beyond what is readily apparent in the
works themselves (many of which are reproduced in a color insert). In
this respect his book complements but does not expand upon
discussions of Arnautoff's murals in books by Anthony Lee, Barbara
Melosh, and Karal Ann Marling, all of which focus primarily on the
work he executed during the New Deal era.[2] Cherny does offer new
information about his Soviet-era mosaic murals. 

Chapters 1, 2, and 3 cover Arnautoff's early life. The son of an
Orthodox priest from the "peasant class" (pp. 1-2) and a descendent
of British ex-patriots, Arnautoff had genuine empathy for the poor
while also feeling a sense of legitimate inheritance as an artist.
His parents' modest status in Mariupol afforded him advantages such
as a classical education and entrée to the officer's corps. Cherny
emphasizes Arnautoff's precarious position as a noncommissioned
officer who was neither a member of the rank and file nor from the
nobility. This precarity was exacerbated by the outbreak of the
October Revolution in 1917, which resulted in large territorial
losses. Cut off from his family in the Ukraine (which became part of
Germany), Arnautoff ended up in Simbirsk, a city on the Volga, where
he joined the White Army. This fateful decision obfuscated his return
for decades after the Bolshevik victory forced him into exile. He
ended up in China, where he served in General Zhang Zoulin's cavalry,
met his wife, Lydia Blonskii, and sired two of his three sons before
leaving for the United States to study art. 

Chapter 4 finds Arnautoff in San Francisco, where he enrolled at the
California School of Fine Arts (CFSA) to study sculpture and mural
painting. As his student visa neared expiration, Arnautoff moved his
family to Mexico City to pursue mural art while he and Lydia applied
for citizenship. Chapter 5 relates Arnautoff's years in Mexico, where
he supervised work on Diego Rivera's murals while Rivera was in San
Francisco painting frescos at the Stock Exchange and the CFSA. Cherny
claims that Rivera's San Francisco murals "included no criticism of
capitalism or colonialism" (p. 71), but other scholars have shown
that this is not the case. For example, in _Allegory of California
_(1931), the theme of telluric abundance is undermined by the
disarticulated body of the female allegory and a pressure gage that
has redlined, indicating that the capitalist exploitation of the land
is about to blow. Arnautoff's role in Rivera's murals is barely
visible. Rivera's influence on Arnautoff's development, however,
cannot be denied. In Arnautoff's subsequent murals we see the
unmistakable influence of Rivera's compositional devices, color
palette, and rendering of the human figure. Moreover, Arnautoff seems
to have learned from him how to embed critical vignettes within
scenes that appear, at face value, to honor the patron's wishes. This
lesson served him well for much of his career as a public artist.

In chapter 6 Cherny recounts Arnautoff's rise in San Francisco's art
world against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Rivera's time in
the city paved the way for large mural projects, and once the New
Deal arts programs were underway, San Francisco enjoyed federal
patronage for public works. Arnautoff was commissioned to paint
murals and serve as technical director for the Public Works of Art
Project at Coit Tower. Cherny relates the controversy that ensued
over some of the artists' inclusion of communist imagery. This
controversy arose amidst the maritime and longshore strikes in 1934
which closed the bay and were then violently repressed on "bloody
Thursday." The artists held their ground in solidarity with the
strikers and Rivera, whose mural at Rockefeller Plaza in New York
City was also under attack. Ultimately, Clifford Wight's mural was
censored, but Arnautoff's was not. His fresco, _City Life _(1934),
which included subtle critiques of finance capital and the
exploitation of the poor, survived owing to his "catholic" ability to
show the good and the bad without endorsing a particular political
solution (p. 95). It was during these years that Arnautoff became
involved with the CP, tentatively at first, and largely as a
consequence of his support for the strike, a theme that he addressed
in his more radical prints. 

By the mid-1930s, Arnautoff's career was in full swing. Chapter 7
covers subsequent federal commissions for murals at the Presidio,
George Washington High School, the San Francisco Art Institute and
post offices in San Francisco and Pacific Grove, California; College
Station and Lindon, Texas; and Richmond, Virginia. In these years he
became a leader in communist circles due to the Popular Front policy
of coalition-building and pro-Soviet sentiment after the German
invasion in 1941. Cherny tracks Arnautoff and his wife's involvement
in a number of Russian American organizations dedicated to promoting
cultural appreciation for Russian art and literature and support for
its fight against fascism. Arnautoff's desire to return to his
childhood home seems to have been the primary incentive for his late
embrace of communism despite the facts that Bolsheviks had forced him
into exile and Stalinists had murdered his father. Nonetheless,
through propaganda circulating in leftist print media, he began to
romanticize Soviet achievements and grew increasingly judgmental of
American life. 

Cherny's lucid analysis of this period illuminates not only
Arnautoff's paradoxical embrace of the Soviet Union but also the
growth of his ethnonationalism, which developed as a consequence of
exile. In chapters 8 and 9 Cherny tracks the slow demise of the Left
during the Cold War, a period during which Arnautoff was classified
by the FBI as a COMSAB ("communist with potential for sabotage") and
restricted from travel. During these dark years he faced California's
Unamerican Activities Committee (CUAC) for satirizing the red scare
in a widely publicized print. During the trial he was repeatedly
asked to confess his membership in the CP and threatened with the
termination of his contract at Stanford University. He prevailed, but
this experience both confirmed his desire to emigrate and finally
convinced Soviet authorities of his loyalty (they had denied his
application twice). 

The final chapter details Arnautoff's life in the Soviet Union, where
he continued his career, remarried, and was reunited with surviving
family. In these years, he drafted his autobiography while enjoying
the perks of minor celebrity. He maintained his support for Soviet
policy even as he relied on relatives in the United States for
medication and supplies and even though it alienated him from his
sons and brother. In the end, Cherny's biography is as much about the
"politics of art" as it is the damages of war and the vagaries of

Cherny's biography offers nuance to an otherwise reductive debate
over Arnautoff's politics and art. But it will do little to dissuade
protestors, who object to his mural's effects, not to the artist's
intentions. And while Arnautoff was an ardent defender of expressive
freedom against state censorship, it is difficult to know how he
would respond to criticism from the very people he thought he was
vindicating. What is certain is that his "catholic" strategy is no
longer effective in an urban environment that has slipped the control
of San Francisco's elite.


[1]. Michele H. Bogart, "The Problem with Cancelling the Arnautoff
Murals," _New York Review of Books Daily_, September 16, 2019,
accessed September 16, 2019.

[2]. Anthony Lee, _Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical
Politics, and San Francisco's Public Murals _(Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1999); Karol Ann Marling, _Wall-to-Wall America: A
Cultural History of Post Office Murals in the Great __Depression
_(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982); Barbara Melosh,
_Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art
and Theater _(Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).

Citation: Mary K. Coffey. Review of Cherny, Robert W., _Victor
Arnautoff and the Politics of Art_. H-California, H-Net Reviews.
January, 2020.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54624

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