San Francisco’s Art from the New Deal Era

Monday, February 29, 2016

During the Depression, artists in San Francisco showed us their world in vibrant public artworks as big and powerful as the events and people they depicted. Robert Cherny, history professor emeritus at SF State, explored these spectacular artifacts of an era that profoundly shaped our own.

With Bob as our guide, we took a virtual tour of a treasure-trove of spectacular public art financed almost entirely by federal spending in FDR’s New Deal. The artwork depicts American scenes, bears the influence of the Depression and of the Mexican mural movement of the 1920s, rediscovers American history, embraces left-wing political causes, promotes social change, and celebrates the New Deal, the arts, and ordinary, often working-class people.

We visited the famous murals by Diego Rivera at the City Club (formerly the Stock Exchange),

The mural covers the wall and ceiling above the main staircase.
The mural at the City Club covers the wall and ceiling above the main staircase.

the San Francisco Art Institute, and City College. We saw the artwork at Coit Tower (various artists), Mission High School (Edith Hamlin), Theodore Roosevelt Middle School (Nelson Poole, George Wilson Walker), the Presidio Chapel (Victor Arnautoff ), George Washington High School (Arnautoff, Lucien Labaudt, Ralph Stackpole, Gordon Langdon, Sargent Johnson), the Beach Chalet (Labaudt, Michael Von Meyer), the Maritime Museum (Johnson, Hilaire Hiler), the Mother’s Building at the zoo(the Bruton sisters, Dorothy Puccinelli, Helen Forbes), UCSF (Bernard Zakheim), Rincon Annex (Anton Refregier), and Treasure Island, the site of the Golden Gate International Exposition (various artists).

Coit Tower, California Agriculture, by Maxine Albro. Note the blue eagle of the NRA.
Coit Tower, California Agriculture, by Maxine Albro. Note the blue eagle of the NRA.
Coit Tower, library scene, Bernard Zakheim
Coit Tower, library scene, Bernard Zakheim
Coit Tower, City Life (including a robbery that no one seems to mind), Robert Arnautoff
Coit Tower, City Life (including a robbery that no one seems to mind), Victor Arnautoff
Part of the mural at Presidio Chapel, Robert Arnautoff
Part of the mural at Presidio Chapel, Victor Arnautoff
Rincon Annex, 1934 Longshoremen's Strike, Anton Refregier
Rincon Annex, 1934 Longshoremen’s Strike, Anton Refregier

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For more information, see The Living New Deal, which includes a comprehensive list with descriptions of projects (not just artwork) built during the New Deal.  That list includes more than 300 projects in San Francisco.   In 2015, the Living New Deal published a map and guide to 18 of those projects.  The map/guide costs $3. The New Deal Art Registry includes excellent descriptions of 26 sites in San Francisco.

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Robert Cherny is a scholar who specializes in American political history from the Civil War to World War II and in the history of California and the West. He received his PhD from Columbia University in 1972 and taught at San Francisco State University from 1971 to 2012. He has been an NEH fellow, a Distinguished Fulbright Lecturer at Lomonosov Moscow State University, a visiting research scholar at the University of Melbourne, and a senior Fulbright lecturer and researcher at Heidelberg University. In addition to more than thirty published essays in journals and anthologies, mostly about the history of politics and labor in California and the West, he was written three books on American politics from 1865 to 1925. He is co-author of two books on the history of San Francisco, a U.S. history survey textbook now in its seventh edition, and a California history textbook now in its second edition. He has co-edited two anthologies—one on U.S. labor during the Cold War, the other on California women and politics. His most recent work, soon to be published, is a biography of Victor Arnautoff, the San Francisco artist who in the thirties created the murals at Coit Tower and George Washington High School, as well as murals elsewhere in the Bay Area.

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