Victor Arnautoff self portrait

Victor Arnautoff

In 1896, a brilliant painter was born, Victor Mikhail Arnautoff in Russia.  He was the son of a Russian priest, and from a very tender age, he showed interest in art.  He looked forward to joining art school once he graduated gymnasium. The First World War, however, broke out, and he went to Yelizavetgrad Cavalry School. He rose to positions of leadership within the military.

After the defeat of whites in Siberia, he moved on to the northeast of China and surrendered, he stayed for five years and began his pursuit of art while there, but he did not succeed, so he instead took a job teaching at the cavalry of Zhang Zuolin. He got married in China to Lydia Blonsky and had two sons.

He came about a student Visa and traveled to San Francisco in November of 1925 to study at the California School of Fine Arts. He studied sculpture with Edgar Walter and then took up painting. His wife and children followed him, and he then moved his whole family to Mexico in 1929. He started as an assistant muralist to Diego Rivera when he arrived in Mexico.

He worked on murals at the Palace of Cortes with Diego. When they began the paintings at the National Palace, Rivera left for San Francisco on a job to paint a mural on the stock exchange building. The move by Diego meant that Victor was left in charge of the paintings back in Mexico. During the same time, he got a third son.

Working in San Francisco and the Bay Area

Victor and his family made their way back to San Francisco in 1931 where he was able to complete his first mural commission. It was at the Palo Alto Clinic where he had been a patient in 1932. His murals were frescoes, and during the unveiling of the mural at the clinic, there was criticism because it showed a woman’s bare breasts. The day it was revealed, a traffic jam occurred in the area.

Victor Arnautoff mural

1934 brought about an appointment as the technical director of the Coit Tower and also he got a painting job where he was required to do one of the paintings for the Coit Tower. His murals mainly showed life in San Francisco during that time.

Victor became the most know Muralist in San Francisco in the 1930s; he completed murals at the clinic and the Washington High School which was about slavery and at the California School of Fine Arts where he has studied, at the library. His murals had central humanist themes that mainly focused on labors and power.

coit tower mural by victor arnautoff

He also took part in painting five post offices in the US, College Station, South San Francisco, Richmond, Linden and Pacific Grove. The 1930s were a time in his career where he held solo exhibitions and significantly promoted his painting career. He was a teacher at the California School of Fine Arts privately during breaks. He was a sculpture and fresco painting teacher. He became a regular teacher in 1936.

In 1938, he got a job at Stanford University where he taught art. While at Stanford, he taught Richard Diebenkorn. In 1947, he had some courses that he taught at the California Labor School that included painting and printmaking.

Political activity

Having come from Russia and China, he was not yet influenced by Marxism. When he moved to Mexico to work with Diego, his political views became communist. He joined the communist party, the American Artists Congress, and the San Francisco Artists and Writers Union. Politically, he was less active than Diego or any other artists’ views. Even though he was subtle in his political activities, his political affiliations were evident in his works.

mural by victor arnautoff

He made a lithograph in 1955, “DIX McSmear” that associated the then vice president Richard Nixon with McCarthyism. There was controversy surrounding this work and Stanford was even pressured to dismiss him. He was interrogated by HUAC and calls for his dismissal continued, but Stanford decided against dismissing him.

Returning to the Soviet Union

In 1961, his wife died, and Victor decided to go back to the Soviet Union. He retired from Stanford and settled in Mariupol. In his retirement, Victor worked on and published a memoir, large tile mosaics, and woodcuts for books. He also organized solo exhibitions during the time. Victor married again in 1970 and died in 1979.

Victor died as a famous Russian-American painter and art professor. San Francisco is where he set his eyes and did tremendous work there. He was a muralist who was not afraid to express his views and also incorporated political views into his works.

He had such a love for art that even after he left the US, he continued his work and art in Russia, his love for art never faded even with old age. He carried on his work as a muralist and sculpture until his death in 1970.

Although his art went through challenging circumstances, in the beginning, he never gave up on his true passion, and he did what he had to do to get to where he wanted to be. The student visa that saw him in San Francisco began his art career, and he took every opportunity that came his way since.

He held special exhibitions, but there are some of his works that are publicly displayed. His work on the post offices, frescos murals at the clinic and Roth building and even post offices and schools in Mariupol after he moved back to Russia.  His work precedes him as even today, his works are in demand, and people travel from many parts of the world to view them.

federal arts project logo

Federal Arts Project

The Federal Arts Project (FAP) began in 1935 as a New Deal program to facilitate the growth of art in the US. It was under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and was among five other projects initialized to oversee the development of various sectors in the New Deal. The primary purpose of the project was to employ artists for mural creation, paintings, sculptures and all aspects of art.

WPA created over 100 art centers in the country to document, research and study the American culture and get to showcase it publicly through art. The exercise was very successful because ten thousand artists were under the program during the great depression.

During its tenure, more than 100,000 paintings were collected and well over 18000 sculptures. Most of the artists who did not have the financial capability to support themselves were employed and supported in their art by this project.

In the 1930s and 1940s, abstract art was not very popular. The federal arts project preferred figurative art. Pollock, an abstract painter, was supported by the project when his art was not very lucrative. The art centers that the federal arts project had begun all over the country educated children, artists, and upcoming artists.

federal arts project painting by pollock

The federal arts project succeeded in bringing awareness of art to the public. It gave hope to so many aspiring artists and provided job opportunities for thousands of artists in the short span of time that it was functional. So many artists got to learn and better their art skills through the project.

Works accomplished under the federal art project

During the early years of FAP, over 1000 artists began to work with WPA. In those years, the success of FAP was realized almost immediately from the quality of art produced and the impact that it made on the public. The artists would get their payments depending on their work and those who needed financial support.

Arshile Gorky is among the first most notable artists to work with FAP. Since the start of FAP, he collaborated with the mural division and earned up to $103 per month. He was assigned a job in 1935 by the head of the painting division to provide sketches for the Floyd Bennett Field administration building in Brooklyn.

Federal Arts Project aviation mural painted by Gorsky

The murals were to be aviation inspired and were supposed to include stories of man aspiring to fly in a romantic setting; it would also show man’s attempts at building a flying machine. Gorky took up the assignment and internalized it; he decided to give people a feel of flying and not just show people in airplanes.

His first idea was a ten-panel mural that he gave the name “Aviation: evolution of forms under aerodynamic limitations.” His vision for the piece was that it would be spread across four walls and have photos of aeronautical figures. After several months working on the sketch, he came up with more than 50 designs and his ideas and visions for the projects kept on growing.

Gorky did not agree with the idea of incorporating photos into his project, and he therefore began convincing FAP why he should be allowed to work on his mural, the site for the project then changed to Newark airport. In 1937, there was the unveiling of the murals that were selected together with the photographs by David Wyatt.

The work of Gorky was significantly recognized and appreciated. The WPA opened an art gallery called the Federal Art Project Gallery in New York. Some of the earliest works that were in the gallery were the watercolors by Jackson Pollock.

willem de kooning federal arts project painting

There were over 6000 artists employed by WPA by 1936, among them Willem de Kooning who quit his job at a shoe store as the designer for the store’s window to join FAP. He was able to work with Harold Rosenberg once he joined WPA.

subway federal arts project painting

Mark Rothko in the same year presented portraits for the Treasury relief art project. It was also part of the WPA projects. The paintings included “two women at the window” and “subway” both in 1937. The many workers in the WPA caught the eye of the government, and the government announced that every employee of WPA had to be an American citizen.

Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning had to stop working any further with FPA because of their citizenships. Most of the non-citizen employees continuing to work regardless of the announcement, but Willem opted to resign from the job.

In 1939, FPA began to lay off some of its workers. Gorky was able to continue working as he got his citizenship but Mark was laid off from FAP. In 1940, WPA came up with a new rule stating that artists should be in constant rotation. Every artist that have been in service for 18 consecutive months was to be laid off for at least one month. It saw the departure of Pollock temporarily.

These were the days that began to mark the end of FAP and WPA. Pollock returned in 1940 and on the first of January in 1943, Lee Krasner was laid off, and less than a month later Pollock was also laid off. In June of the same year, the FPA stopped supporting artists.

At the end of 1943, most of the WPA-funded paintings were on sale at auction by the government and that marked the dissolution of WPA. The WPA and FAP left a mark on the people from the number of artists that had gotten opportunities from the program.

The FAP went down as a project that mostly supported figurative artists rather than abstract art. During the years that WPA and FAP were working, they came up with over 200, 000 art pieces. A majority of those art pieces got lost or destroyed during the dissolution of the program.

All the art that got funding from WPA remains federal property to date. The General Services Administration works together with the FBI and artists to find and recover the works. The GSA is the custodian of the arts and carries the task with keeping an inventory of all federal art.

By 2014, the GSA had managed to gather only 20,000 of the artwork. The search for the WPA arts still continues although most are destroyed and of poor condition. There were 122 FAP paintings recovered from libraries in California in 2015.

For more be sure to check out the Library of Congress Federal Arts Project page.

David Alfaro Siqueiros

David Siqueiros was born in 1896 in Chihuahua the second born in a family of three children. At a young age, his mother died, and his father sent them to live with their grandparents. His grandfather from that moment on played an enormous role in shaping his growth since he spent his childhood with his grandfather.

David Alfaro Siqueiros mural featuring a man reaching out and appearing to tear the mural with his fingernails

In many accounts of his birth and childhood, false dates and speculations have been given even by him, but his story begins in Chihuahua 1896 and proceeds to include moving to his grandparents. David joined a school in 1902 in Guanajuato. During his years in school, he had taken to political ideologies, and the theories put out by the likes of Dr. Atl. He also explained that his first outburst was by his sister who refused to conform to their father’s religious rules.

In 1911, Siqueiros while at the Academy of San Carlos took part in a strike that whose aim was to impeach the director because the students did not like the teaching methods that the school was using. The riot paved the way for the establishment of an open air Academy in Santa Anita. David was only fifteen when he took part in the riot.

By 18 years, he had joined the school of fine arts. He and his friends joined Carranza’s army and fought the government of Huerta. The end of the revolution in 1914 meant that now the fight against political factions picked up. He traveled while in the army, and he got a better understanding of the Mexican culture.

After Carranza had taken power, Siqueiros took to painting in Mexico for a short time and then moved to Europe in 1919. He got the Cubism influence in Paris, and he found the work of Paul Cezanne a marvel, especially his use of large blocks of intense color. He met Diego Rivera in Paris. They later became part of the big three but not before traveling throughout Italy together and studying the fresco technique.

Artistic and political career

Siqueiros had political interests besides being a famous painter. There were speculations that sometimes his political needs hindered his artistic nature but he believed that his two greatest interests were co-dependent. His time abroad exposed him to Marxism, and it was evident in his manifesto, Vida Americana. In the manifesto, he was trying to grow his unique style that can marry national and universal art.

He made his way back to Mexico in 1922 where he took a job working as a muralist for the government of Alvaro Obregon. When Jose Vasconcelos began hiring artists to help educate the masses and preserve the Mexican culture, Siqueiros was hired and worked alongside Diego and Orozco. In turn, Vasconcelos gave his support to the muralist movement through commissioning murals in prominent buildings.

David Alfaro Siqueiros revolution mural

In as much as thoroughly were approved for famous buildings, they still lacked the public element to them, and this led Siqueiros to be among the founders of the Syndicate of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers in 1923. The syndicate dealt with publicizing the art of the artists by starting a newspaper, “El Machete.” The newspaper put out a manifesto that Siqueiros had taken part in authoring.

The declaration insisted on the importance of having collective art that can educate the masses and do away with individualistic art. His famous “Burial of a worker” mural did not get to be complete. Students destroyed it because they felt that it was an overly political painting.

The government had made promises that it had not fulfilled and the pressure began to build up as the movement became even more critical of the government through their art. The rift and strains with the government that had been funding murals left the Syndicate in awe of whether to keep publishing their newspaper.

The officials of the union had different opinions which saw to the exit of Diego from the union because Siqueiros was more focused on politics than the artistic value of their work. He was relieved of duty from the department of education in 1925, but he still followed his vision which later got him jailed in 1930.

He took part in political activities even after his release from prison until 1932 when he left for Europe and picked up his artistic career as a muralist. He tried modern painting methods while there and came up with two very famous murals. On these paintings, he worked in a team. The first Mural did not last long after its unveiling. Many speculate that it was because of its general theme while others said that it was because of weather issues that made the painting wash up.

David Alfaro Siqeiros The Mexican Revolution

The second mural is considered more radical than the first one, but it got a better reception than the first one. The wall got partial covering in 1934 and thoroughly washed in 1938 however. The mural then underwent restoration eight years later done by the Getty Conservation Institute. The painting became open to the public in 2012, on its 80th birthday. There is a Tropical Interpretive Center that is especially to honor the life of David Siqueiros.

Siqueiros artistic style

He had a much-propelled vision and belief that art should be public for all to see and learn from its messages. His work’s main basis was on the revolution; he tried to shed light on human struggles so that the end of capitalist rulers would come. He incorporated the Mexican culture and history into some of his paintings which he mainly used as accessories to his main story.

Though many said that he was more political than artist, his vision was clear to him as he fought to get to show and communicate to the upper and lower class alike. He took part in the first ever Mexican Incidental with Orozco, Diego, and Tamayo in 1950 at the XXV Venice Biennale. He got second place, a prize that recognized the status of Mexican art internationally.

Later life

“The people to the university, the university to the people,” is an outdoor mural that Siqueiros painted at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1952. He began working on a 4500sqft mural in 1957 that was his biggest painting yet. It was a government commissioned painting for Chapultepec Castle.

The people to the university, the university to the people," is an outdoor mural that Siqueiros painted at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1952

He also made a multi-angular mural in Hospital de Raza that used new and modern materials. Siqueiros was not opposed to technology, and he expressed a liking for modernity. His views drew a rift between him and the government which saw to his arrest in 1960 over his public criticism of the president. He was also sued by the Jorge Negrete Theater for breach of contract too in 1958.

His arrest led to protests from artists and painters, he, however, continued painting and his works continued to sell. He was released in 1964 and immediately picked up on his work at the theater where he was on suspension.

He was the youngest of the big three but comfortably expressed his views with no fear. His Marxist influence made his views mainly communist. He participated in many artistic as well as political activities which made him both politician and muralist.

The circumstances and confusion surrounding his birth and upbringing were put to rest when a Mexican art curator came about his birth certificate in 2003. His original name was Alfaro, but he had changed his name to David when his wife called him so. She referred to him as David who was in the painting by Michelangelo.

photograph of José Clemente Orozco, barred window is visible in the background

Jose Clemente Orozco

He was one of the big three, known for his art and murals. Jose Clemente Orozco was born in 1883, to Rosa Orozco in Zapotlan el Grande. By the age of 21, he had a wife with whom he got three children. Jose did not have his left arm as he had lost it while working with gunpowder.

Clemente said that his art began at a young age. He drew his inspiration from Jose Guadalupe Posada. Jose would walk by the place where Posada was painting, and in his autobiography, Orozco would stop and take in the paintings. The work of Posada opened up his mind, and he began to paint on paper.

Orozco went to the school for agriculture and architecture, there was not much use of color there, and the paintings of Posada gave him the ideas for uses of color. He later went to the Academy of San Carlos. He became an illustrator for newspapers and also for the Constitutionalist armies. Orozco gave his support to Carranza after the split of factions in 1914.

Jose Clemente together with Diego Rivera led the Mexican muralism. He had a much darker view of the revolution. Diego gave praise to the revolution while Clemente was not comfortable with the bloodshed that came with the revolution. In his time, he got to work with fresco on large walls, so did the other two members of the big three.

1922 to 1924 was a busy time for Clemente as he did six murals at the National Preparatory School. These paintings include, “destruction of the old order,”“ the trench and the Trinity,  maternity among many others. The destruction of these murals came from him and others by conservative students. The paintings, Orozco had to repaint them.

The repair work took place in 1926 when he got back from painting “omniscience” at the House of Tiles in Mexico City, 1925. After the repair work, he painted a mural at the industrial school in Veracruz. After his work was complete, he moved to the US where he stayed from 1927 to 1934.

In 1929, there was a devastating fall of the stock market, but his work did not suffer as his paintings were still in high demand. He was invited by Pomona College Art Department from March to June 1930. His art at the college was a fresco, “Prometheus” which he said was the first mural painted outside the country by a Mexican painter. He put up the painting on the dining hall wall of the college.

José Clemente Orozco mural

The mural was direct, contrary to the belief at the time that drawings were supposed to be for decorations only. The Prometheus became the first modern fresco in the US. After the wall was complete, he got other jobs of painting walls. At the New school for Social Research in New York. Some of his most famous works are in the US where he spent a considerable amount of time.

In 1932 and 1934, he worked on “the epic of American civilization” which is one of the most famous murals ever painted. The Dartmouth College in New Hampshire boasts of having been where this mural was. It was a large painting that included migration stories, human sacrifice, Anglo-America, Hispano-America, science, new movement and the appearance of Quetzalcoatl.

His return to Mexico came with painting the mural in Guadalajara, “the people and its leaders” in the government palace. The frescos for the Hospicio Cabanas, which are considered his masterpiece also on the same year he returned.

The 1940s were a busy time for Orozco, he painted at the Gabino Ortiz library, and he also did a painting for the Hospital de Jesus in Mexico. He did illustrations for “the Pearl” by John Steinbeck in 1947 and 1948, he worked on one of his last works, “Juarez reborn.” Orozco died in 1949.

Orozco’s Series in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria

It is his most famous works. The murals are on three floors and the stairways of the building. The paintings give his detailed view of the revolution. He began the work in 1923 and completed in 1926. Every floor had a story to tell and each with appropriately illustrated.

José Clemente Orozco la trinchera mural

The first floor murals were six. Each unique and in precise detail. The trench is said to have been a confirmation of the expertise of Clemente as a painter. There are bloody and melodramatic scenes in the first floor murals. All the walls on the first floor had a different approach but the same goal of showing the evils of the Revolution.

The Trinity showed negative sides of the revolution where the leaders abused the same people that they were supposed to be serving. The banquet of the rich is another mural on the first floor where Orozco shows the gap between the rich and the poor and how the rich oppress the peasants and abuse power.

The second floor contains murals such as “law and justice,” the wealthy, liberty, garbage and Jehovah between the influential and the have-nots. They are all paintings with a story and a goal that continue to show Orozco’s criticism for the revolution.

The third floor contained seven murals including the grave digger, the blessing, the farewell, the workers, the family, the revolutionaries, and women. The farewell is significant, and it shows the sacrifice of the revolution. The painting shows men leaving their homes to fight the revolution.

José Clemente Orozco stairwell mural

The murals on the stairways included the youth, aboriginal races, Franciscans helping the sick, the drinking men, the engineers and Cortes and Malinche. The drinking people and the engineers cover the east wall of the stairway. In these murals, Orozco presents the colonization of Mexico by the Spanish.

Conclusion

Jose Clemente was a painter who during his time made such an impact that people still remembers to date. His works mainly included political murals, and as part of the Mexican muralists’ movement, he did a remarkable job. He was able to work both in the US and Mexico and never lost sight of his vision. His drawings and paintings are available in Mexico City, Carrillo Gil Museum and at the Orozco Workshop Museum in Guadalajara.