- Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art by Robert W. Cherny
Robert W. Cherny
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017
xvii + 321 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $34.95 (paper); $30.00 (ebook)
A reappraisal of Victor Arnautoff (1896–1979) is long overdue. Unjustly forgotten, he was a famed muralist of the Left in Depression-era San Francisco. Until now many of the best labor artists, such as Anton Refregier, Lucienne Bloch, and Fletcher Martin, are routinely subordinated to their East Coast Federal Art Project colleagues Ben Shahn, Moses Soyer and Raphael Soyer, and Alice Neel. In Arnautoff’s case, Robert W. Cherny, an emeritus professor of history at San Francisco State University, has now provided a biography to fill one gap in previous scholarship.
The research here is exhaustive. To name a few primary-source collections, it includes Arnautoff’s voluminous papers, surveillance materials of the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Russian archival documents, his colleagues’ oral histories, interviews with his family, and Arnautoff’s own published works. The book itself is graced with beautiful color reproductions. There are many in black and white unavailable before.
Cherny uses the prism of the artist’s shifting radical politics to scrutinize a life first formed by anti-Bolshevik (White Russian) military activity during the Russian Revolution. Soon after, an émigré in San Francisco, a city with a sizable Russian colony (and a local communist party), the artist joined an “art front” collective. Arnautoff brought to the leftist group an impressive command of figuration, color, and draftsmanship. He used these skills to depict West Coast general strikes such as one by the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (Down with Fink Halls, 1936); violence by agents of the state (Untitled [Gunfire Victims], 1934); the desperation of ordinary people (Marathon Dancing, 1935); and the continuing injuries of class (The Lettuce Pickers, 1940; The Cable Men, 1948).
The artist was also in at the creation of Coit Tower, a 1933 megamonument supported by the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Public Works of Art. Arnautoff was trebly prominent: technical consultant, art director, and contributor. He showcased his aesthetic talents in moralistic panels, including one in which he is depicted as a typical proletarian about to read nearby leftist newspapers.
To the solid citizens of San Francisco, Arnautoff’s consistently leftist colleagues Bernard Zakheim and John Langley Mitchell, along with other local artists, had unleashed a taboo Marxism. Arnautoff, perhaps because of his connections with fine art collectors, was the rare Coit Tower project artist whose reputation remained unblemished.
Cherny, however, employs all of this impressive biography particularity to help solve the “puzzle” of his subject’s ideological progress. He lays out his task to explain Arnautoff’s “180–degree shift” from Russian anti-Bolshevik to vacillating fellow traveler to communist (xii). The difficulty of this approach is that the book also claims to [End Page 115] answer the question of how the art in question reflected the man’s vacillating politics. While the author qualifies the argument by stating he is not an art historian, his encyclopedic knowledge of the Arnautoff corpus and its contexts could have enabled a rediscovery of the artist’s cultural practice. For example, there are an excellent few pages on Diego Rivera’s influence on Arnautoff’s modeling, color, and brushwork. They join those on Thomas Hart Benton’s pictorial fluidity to enhance Arnautoff’s critique of America’s flawed egalitarianism.
But rather than enlarge on those insights, Cherny merely suggests that Arnautoff was “moving in the direction of Party membership” (99). An examination of Arnautoff’s actual production using the arc of his career belies this thesis. His “American period” actually included a return to classical themes, exemplified in his large oil painting on the entombment of Christ.
For a fuller portrait of the relationship between Arnautoff’s art and his politics, Cherny might have deconstructed his subject’s alleged pictorial support of art for the masses. As a teacher at the California School for the Arts, a radical one compared to others, the man never mentioned politics. A student even complained that Arnautoff...