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.