As multiple crises pile up on top of each other in the young 21st century, a tripartite mural in a former San Francisco post hall berates us with its outdated optimism.
“War and Peace” by artist Anton Refregier recalls what could have been if the United States – and the world – had learned enough from two catastrophic wars and the rise of fascism between them to have chosen a different path. . When Refregier painted it 75 years ago at one end of the Rincon Annex Post Office building in downtown San Francisco, the mural expressed then-widespread hope for a future. that did not happen.
In 1940, Refregier, a resident of Woodstock, New York, won a prestigious jury competition to paint 27 murals for the post office lobby. Its award was one of the largest commissions sponsored by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, a New Deal initiative to beautify federal buildings with works by prominent American artists. It was also one of his most provocative commissions, as the cycle of murals contemplated by Refregier would represent the complete and messy history of San Francisco, including its racial and class divisions, subjects seldom, if ever, to seen on the walls of post offices.
World War II postponed the project, and in 1943 Congress terminated the Treasury Section and transferred its commission to the new Public Buildings Administration. Refregier mourned the loss for himself and for the nation; he said the commissions in the treasury section “would have ended up becoming a monumental art of world significance”, like the murals in Mexico, if they had not been killed.
As multiple crises pile up on top of each other in the young 21st century, a tripartite mural in an old San Francisco post hall berates us with its outdated optimism.
In the spring of 1945, Fortune magazine sent Refregier to San Francisco to draw pictures for the United Nations Conference on International Organizations. The rally was designed to abort another world war, or worse.
Just two weeks before the opening of the meeting, a brain hemorrhage shot down the man who had conceived the United Nations. Conference delegates mourned Franklin Roosevelt’s absence at the opening, and a month later they met in an ancient redwood grove at Muir Woods National Monument to dedicate a plaque that named him “The Architect. Chief of the United Nations and apostle of lasting peace for All mankind.
Roosevelt’s death and the political maneuvering that Refregier witnessed at the UN conference inspired him to create “a magnificent climax” for a cycle of frescoes showing a city largely built on conflict. While retaining most of his original plan for the mural, he abandoned his design for the final piece (a panoramic painting from the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair) and replaced it with a triptych – a three-panel image – illustrating the healing of the ancient wounds through international cooperation and the price to be paid for not doing so.
In the left panel, a huge armored hand rises from a stack of burning books, a swastika flag, and concentration camp prisoners to confront the massed Allied cannons. In the right panel, people of all races gather around a circular table covered with the flags of many nations, the sun of a new day rising behind them.
Refregier sought to fill in the two antithetical images with a portrait of Roosevelt in the center. He was inspired by a photo of the sick president returning from a dangerous wartime trip to meet Churchill and Stalin in Yalta. Roosevelt’s face, according to the artist, was that of a “tired, sensitive and utterly handsome” man who “lives in the hearts and minds of the people” and “therefore belongs to the history of this city.” He will dedicate the entire cycle to the memory of the late president.
Refregier returned to San Francisco in June 1946 to paint the lobby, but soon came into conflict with unsympathetic bureaucrats in the Public Buildings Administration. His new superiors in Washington ordered him to impeach Roosevelt, telling him that the image of a recently deceased president was inappropriate for a federal building. With the support of intellectuals, unions and other artists, Refregier resisted for seven months, but ultimately capitulated to what he saw as the forces that were already triggering the Cold War.
“It was necessary,” he said, “to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence, peace and hope for friendship with the Soviet Union in order to see the American people enter. in the cold war “.
The artist has replaced Roosevelt’s face with a multiracial group that looks to the United Nations for the achievement of the “four freedoms” the president named in his 1941 State of the Union address. freedoms of speech and religion, Roosevelt had insisted that two other freedoms—of fear and of want — should become global human rights. Four golden pillars stood on the stage of the Opera House during the United Nations conference to represent these freedoms.
But the world was not to be free from fear or want. As Refregier predicted, the Cold War erased Roosevelt’s hopes for peace and economic freedom, while the McCarthy era resulted in purges against those who shared Roosevelt’s vision. Led by nationalist organizations and the Hearst press, efforts to censor or destroy Refregier’s murals began even as he painted them. In 1949, Representative Richard Nixon replied to a worried American legionary: “I think a committee should do a thorough investigation into this type of art in government buildings with a view to securing the removal of all that is. proves incompatible with American ideals and principles. “Three years later and just a few months after starting Nixon’s vice-presidency, the House Committee on Public Works met in Washington to consider the destruction of the murals of Refregier.
With strong support from the establishment in San Francisco and beyond, the murals have survived, but the post office has not. In 1979, the building was redeveloped into a multipurpose complex. Its current owners maintain the existing hall as a public space listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, just steps from where the nations of the world met to sign the Charter of the United Nations, a growing legion of the homeless, hungry and sick roam the city streets under opulent towers. They bear witness to how far San Francisco, the nation, and the world have strayed from Roosevelt’s freedom of want and fear.
At a time when collective global action is needed to tackle climate chaos, pandemics, nuclear weapons and the resurgence of fascism, few are turning to the UN today as Congress of Nations Roosevelt and Refregier hoped. .
Like Roosevelt’s face, the purpose for which he was created has been erased.