As the conservator and ongoing custodian of the historic murals at Rincon Center, 55 Mission St. in San Francisco, I have often been asked to render my opinion on the significance of these important artworks. In September of 1986, The San Francisco Business Journal wrote that I
“withheld my personal opinion on the art and preferred to talk about the restoration process itself .”
Due to the highly charged political content of these murals, I felt that it was not my position as a professional art conservator to render such an opinion. I have never experienced a need to comment on them from an artistic, historic or political vantage point until now in our current political climate.
These 27 panels represent the largest and most expensive single mural project ever awarded under the Depression era programs established to put artists to work. Many refer to these various projects as part the WPA program or Work Progress Administration. The Rincon Center murals specifically, were commissioned under a program directed by the U.S. Treasury Department, the last of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal art projects of the mid 20th Century. More importantly, they represent a moment in American history when art and history itself were put on trial.
The Rincon Annex Post Office murals were painted by Russian born artist Anton Refrieger in the post-World War II era between 1946 and 1948. It was a time when tensions revolved around the cold war and suspected subversions on the Homefront. Conservative and patriotic values ran high in the U.S. and America stood at the forefront of a new world order.
Refregier’s preliminary designs were envisioned and drafted in the late 30’s and early 40’s near the end of the Great Depression. World War II interrupted the completion of the commission and work was resumed in 1946 at the end of the war. In contrast to the political landscape after World War II, the artist painted California’s history in a frank, honest and judgmental interpretation that was inspired by the hardships of an earlier and depressed era. He was not preoccupied with the aggrandizement of our state and nation’s past. For many, his works were perceived as dark passages from regional history that questioned the nobility and grandeur of early settlers. Many considered the character and themes of these paintings “un-American”.
Significant attempts were made by conservative political forces to remove these murals. The artist is said to have worried that conservative “thugs” would come along in the middle of the night to destroy his masterpiece. However, San Franciscans rallied and the murals were saved. But the controversies surrounding this now preserved landmark continue to be an indelible part of San Francisco’s famous and infamous history.
Politics have always played a major role in attempts to record or destroy history. Art and history have been repeatedly put on trial throughout the ages. It’s happened many times before the McCarthy era challenges to the Rincon murals and it has happened many times since. That’s the inherent nature of art, particularly as it exists in the public realm.
Long before the Rincon Murals were challenged, Hitler’s vigorous attempts to eradicate the art, the history and the memory of all that displeased him were among the many atrocities associated with Germany’s Third Reich. More recently, the world was shocked in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed important monuments in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan because they were inconsistent with the Taliban’s own religious views and ideology. And in even more recent times, the scourge of ISIS has devastated the art world. Historians, preservationists and the world public at large are equally appalled by the destruction of long treasured antiquities in the Palmyra Valley and elsewhere throughout the Middle East The impact is best described by William Webber of the UK based Art Loss Registry. “If you’re going to eradicate someone’s identity, the best way is to eradicate their art”
It’s been said that censoring history is an act of cowardice It can come from the left as well as the right. In 2014, a feminist group in France rallied to have the iconic VJ Day statue of “The Kiss” destroyed because they found it offensive to the feminist agenda. And there are many in this country that still rally to destroy any vestiges of what remain of the Judeo-Christian heritage that has played a significant role in the development of our nation, as we know it today.
Almost thirty years have past since I restored the murals at Rincon Center. Irrespective of my own political inclinations, I’ve come to further appreciate Refregier’s honest attempts at conveying the darker sides of history. I view such attempts as something requisite in the achievement of a more enlightened society. His work remains as yet one more reminder that, “those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
In this understanding, I feel that the artist Anton Refregier and I are more alike than different, with a convergence of minds and ideologies from two polar ends of the political spectrum. As a politically conservative art conservator, I am as determined to honor and preserve the past as the socialist artist was to paint it. Any attempt to alter history is an affront on truth however it may be perceived and interpreted.
In the historic lobby of Rincon Center, stark and sometimes unpleasant truths associated with the American journey are displayed front and center. A corridor adjacent to the historic lobby leads to the newer atrium area where the more recent 1980’s paintings by artist Richard Hass adorn the walls. These newer additions to the old Rincon Annex Post Office were once referred to as “a monument to capitalism.” The Hass paintings depict the abundance and sense of well being often associated with the accomplishments of free enterprise and the American Dream. There are obvious contrasts and a distinct irony associated with the juxtaposition of these two very different works of art. But I believe that standing between them gives one a great sense of what it means to be uniquely American.
As conservators, historians and preservationists, we must adhere to our own distinct and unique version of the “Hippocratic” oath. Aside from our own personal and political proclivities, we are bound by obligation to honor the past and the truths associated with it. I would like to believe that Anton Refregier would agree.