A Russian Communist painter spent decades defacing San Francisco with ugly social realist art. The son of a Russian Orthodox priest who had left his faith and found a new one, Victor Mikhail Arnautoff depicted a world of stolid ugliness, of shapeless men and women crowding a foreshortened world.
Arnautoff did not like America. And he was a bad painter. His people are soulless representations of an objectified working class. No one smiles in these murals. They occasionally frown and grimace. Their world, like the people in it, has no dimension or depth. Even the revolution will not save them. Only transform them from one type of routine into another in a hopeless world without beauty or meaning.
To social realists like Arnautoff, people were a type of machinery. Society was a factory. Human bodies were just lumpy misshapen industrial architecture. Life was work and work was a struggle.
But the WPA era was a golden age for leftist muralists whose ugly social realist art still scars buildings and lobbies across the country. The Federal Art Project littered Marxist dogma across countless government buildings, often encoded into murals of Washington, Lincoln, and other great Americans.
Arnautoff had assisted Diego Rivera, but his own murals were, until now, far more obscure. And the mural whose fame outlived the Communist, who died in Leningrad in the 70s, had been painted on the walls of an American high school. Generations of high school students had passed it without caring.
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