Saturday, November 6, 2010

Field Notes: Some WPA Murals in San Francisco

One of my earliest art memories is seeing the WPA murals at the San Francisco Zoo, and just loving them (I still do).  I thought I'd do some research into some of the San Francisco murals that the New Deal/WPA era gave us:


Section of "City Life" Mural in Coit Tower, from Wikipedia
When this SF monument was finished, it was widely considered a waste of public money.  The WPA murals were commissioned to give a bigger sense of purpose to the building by celebrating California life and industry.  Twenty-six artists, mainly faculty and students of the California School of Fine Arts, worked on the project under the direction of Ralph Stackpole and Bernard Zakheim.  While many of the murals did boost morale (the WPA's objective), many of the artists literally did not paint a rosy picture of reality.  For instance, in "City Life" by Victor Arnautoff (left), there is a robbery going on in the right front, and a car accident in the center back.  In addition, a couple of the newspapers in the stand had leftist (Communist) leanings.  There was a public outcry. with the San Francisco Chronicle branding them "red propaganda" and demanding them to be whitewashed over.  Delaying the opening of the Tower and Murals for several months and making a few small changes allowed the outcry to die down and no mural was painted over.  These murals are in pristine condition, and are considered one of the art treasures of San Francisco.

Rincon Center

The murals here were painted between 1941 and 1948 by Russian immigrant, Anton Refregier.  He was strongly influenced by Diego Rivera, and also had leftist leanings.  For example, the mural shown below:
If you look closely, you'll see the sign once extended much lower. It advocated for "Eight Hour day" - even in the 1940's this was too "Controversial" and Refrigier had to edit it out. The "Torchlight Procession" mural was originally titled "Union Wins 8 Hour Day." However, the suggestion of a union triumph was too controversial for Refregier's overseers in Washington. He retitled it "Importation of Coolie Labor," but the local Chamber of Commerce and the employers' association protested. As "Torchlight Procession," all references to Chinese laborers and union victories were eliminated.
                       --- from “Historic Murals of Rincon Center” by Rob Spoor
Beach Chalet

Lucien Labaudt painted a series of murals in 1936  at the Beach Chalet, and they were restored in 1988.  They show scenes of California life and industry.  I chose the mural below because (a) it shows the completion of the first tower of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, but not the whole bridge as that was in the process of being built when the mural was done, and (b) the artist painted himself into this scene.  He's in the lower left with his back to us and his face in profile; his wife is in the green bathing cap and swimsuit.
Presidio Chapel

Victor Arnautoff, who painted the City Life mural in Coit Tower, was commissioned to paint murals in the Presidio's Chapel, which are still available for viewing by the public.  Below is a section of these murals showing the historic figures of Maria de La Concepcion Marcela Arguello, and her bretrothed (at 15!), Russian Chamberlain Nikolai Rezanov.  Behind them is her father, Presidio Commandante Don Jose Arguello. 

S.F. Zoo Mothers' Building

Originally called the Mothers' House and built in 1925, this building pre-dates the zoo.  It was originally a refuge for moms and kids from the hot sun while at Ocean Beach or Fleishhacker Pool which was next door.  The Murals were painted by two women, Dorothy Pucinelli and Dorothy Forbes with mosaics by the Bruton sisters: Margaret, Esther and Helen.  Sadly, the artwork that I so fondly remember is in desperate need of repair and the Building itself was closed in 2002 due to extensive water damage and age.

Diego Rivera

While Diego Rivera did not do any WPA projects in San Francisco, he was a huge influence on the artists who were employed under the program.  There are three of his murals in San Francisco, and all may be viewed by the public:

"Allegory of California", painted in 1931, is in The City Club;
"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of A City", begun right after Allegory and shown below, is at the San Franicsco Art Institute; and
"Pan American Unity" (1940) is housed in the Diego Rivera Theatre at San Francisco City College.
A great link:

UC Berkeley has a website called "California's Living New Deal Project" which has information about all the New Deal works in the state.  It also includes an active map that you can click on and explore.  It's very cool and informative.  Visit

Sources and Further Reading:

"Coit Tower Murals"'s article on Coit Tower Murals:

Rincon Center Community Blog (shows all the murals):

Art (and History) on Trial: Historic Murals of Rincon Center

Beach Chalet:

Presidio Chapel:

SF Zoo:

Diego Rivera Murals in SF:  (tour website)

Wikipedia links:
Coit Tower:
Rincon Center:

No comments:

Post a Comment