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Victor Arnautoff: Passionate Paintings of the Bay Area Black Community in the Mid-20th Century

In 1947, "the towns along El Camino Real, U.S. 101 bordering Stanford, had a policy that no African-American should be within their borders after the sun went down. A Black faculty member was simply beyond imagination. I remember no African students, and find it hard to conceive that there might have been one, even aside from the financial barrier. Where would one live? In a fraternity or sorority? Incredible. In a dorm? But then whites would have to tolerate a Black sleeping in the same room. Out of the question."

"A faculty art show was on and I wandered in. But for one painting it was typical of academic work at that time: a competent, bland collection of decorative still-lifes, landscapes, portraits, strictly realist, and leaning heavily to watercolors and pastels. Not a thought in a carload -- except for that one painting. Its strong but totally naturalist oils blazed across the room.

"The painting depicted four Black men, working men in their go-to-church-on-Sunday suits, carrying a coffin in the middle of Market Street, San Francisco's main thoroughfare. A bulky policeman, standing with legs spread wide, each hand grasping an end of his club, stood behind them, watching. Over his shoulder shone the traffic light, blazing red. The title was 'Anti-Lynching Demonstration.' The artist's name was painted in clear block letters at the bottom: Victor Arnautoff."

"I sought him out. I would have done so in any case because of the painting but I was also desperately looking for a kindred soul on campus.

"I told Arnautoff that I had been deeply affected by the painting, its craftsmanship, execution, and subject-matter. I gave him a copy of my recently-published book, as a token of respect, and inscribed it accordingly. He said that if I liked his work so much...Tanya and I should come to his studio...and see his entire opus....

"It floored us. We had been raised on New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and that city's other great collections, and our standards were high, if conventional. This man was good. He was not only good, but his work also covered a wide range of human experience. His use of color was northern-California vivid and absolutely true, the draftsmanship superb. He loved color for its own sake, but believed in depictive realism. He put his passion for color into the red of the stoplight in the anti-lynching painting, the balloon tugging at its string in the hand of an unemployed seller who was the subject of another, the pastel of an arguing housewife's workaday skirt, the gold of the dry grass in a pasture, the California sky.

"We oohed and aahed our enthusiasm. As we expressed our thanks yet again and started out the door, he said, 'If you like them so much, why don't you take one?' I was utterly embarrassed, and made clear that was a degree of generosity I would not accept. He said, 'But you gave me a copy of your book!' I replied: 'The book costs $5 and your paintings are marked $100 and $150.' He countered, 'But it took you much longer to write the book than it took me to do any of the paintings!' And then knocked us over completely by saying, 'You don't seem to know which you like best. Take one for a while, and if it isn't what you want to live with, bring it back and try another instead.' We agreed."

When we found a house to rent near Stanford: "There wasn't a painting or even a print in the place, not a single bookcase or bookshelf, and there were things like a flat wooden three-or-four-foot high Black jockey holding an ash tray.

"I phoned Arnautoff, described the interior horror to him, and made what I thought was a very bold request. Instead of lending us one painting, would he lend us three or four to light up those awful walls? From them we would ultimately select the one he had offered us as gift. He agreed."

"Victor had been born into the lower ranks of the Russian hereditary nobility....When the revolution occurred, he naturally fought with the monarchists against the Communists....Arnautoff had stewed for years over the great puzzle of his side's defeat in the Russian Civil War. They had the trained officers. Artillery, machine-guns, rifles, munitions, even some tanks and planes, were all provided by the United States. The Communists had nothing....After years of agonizing -- quite literally, for it resulted in an ulcer that ultimately caused him half his stomach -- Arnautoff concluded that the people had been on the side of the Communists. And for the rest of his fairly long life they stayed there.

"So this aristocrat and long-time monarchist officer decided that communism must be good for the people, and became one. He was a remarkable combination of Russian patriot and Communist internationalist. He learned the revolutionary traditions of the American people. This was evident in his murals in San Francisco's George Washington High School. He immersed himself in the history of African-Americans. On our living room wall is his splendid litho portraying Harriet Tubman, the Black 'general' of the Underground Railway. He contributed to the illustrated calendar put out by the Communist-led Graphic Arts Workshop, initially part of the California Labor School. Arnautoff is most easily seen in San Francisco's Coit Tower murals, where he painted an entire wall of city streets and people in the 1930s."

The foregoing is from my autobiography. Today I own six Arnautoff's: three oils, the "Tubman," a watercolor, and a color litho titled "Tricky Dick McSmear." That last is described in a marvelous brand-new art book: AT WORK, The Art of California Labor, which prompted me to do this post. But first I have to tell you how I got "Tricky Dick", of which the book simply says: "Arnautoff produced a lithograph at the Graphic Arts Workshop caricaturing the young Vice-President Richard Nixon, 'Dick McSmear,' which created a storm when it was censored from the city's 1954 Arts Commission exhibition."

The "McSmear" was a play on (Sen. Joe) McCarthy, and the body was sloppily dressed, as McCarthy was, for a senator. The face was Nixon's. I had been called before McCarthy the previous year, was blacklisted and dead broke. I saw a one-paragraph story in the N.Y. Times about the censorship, and sent Arnautoff a telegram, which then was cheaper than a transcontinental phone call. One paid only for the body, not the address, so I addressed it to Slava Viktoru Arnautovu, which is Russian for "three cheers for Victor Arnautoff," asked him to send me a copy of the litho, and promised to pay when I could.

The book, AT WORK, is companion volume to an exhibition absolutely unprecedented anywhere in this country. It was put together by the California Historical Society, the Art Department of San Francisco State University, and the California Federation of Labor. Works done during the 20th century are at the historical society, which happens to be on Mission St. right around the corner from the S.F. Museum of Modern Art. Those from 2000 on are in the Art Museum of San Francisco State. But fifteen other cities nationwide have been lined up to show the exhibition after it closes in San Francisco.

By William Mandel. The title of my autobiography, SAYING NO TO POWER (Introduction by Howard Zinn), is based on my demolition of Sen. Joe McCarthy and later of HUAC in hearings of 1953 and 1960. It is a history of how the American people fought to defend and expand its rights since the 1920s (I'm 86) employing the form of the life of a 30s AND 60s activist, one who was involved in most serious movements: student, labor, 45 years of efforts to prevent war with the USSR and Cuba, civil rights South and North, women's liberation [my late wife appears on 50 pages], 37 years on Pacifica Radio [where I reinvented talk radio, of whose previous existence I had been unaware], civil liberties, and opposition to anti-Semitism and to Zionism. You may hear/see my testimonies before McCarthy and, later, HUAC on my website, I am the author of five books in my academic field, have taught at UC Berkeley, and earlier held a postdoctoral fellowship, by invitation, at Stanford's Hoover Institution. The book may be ordered through all normal sources. For an autographed copy, send me $24 at 4466 View Pl.,#106, Oakland, CA. 94611

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