The Public Art of San Francisco
So which city in the USA has 600 murals on its streets, all available for public perusal? Well, it’s the same city that has a Cartoon Museum, a Spanish Mission dating from 1791 and a Museum of Modern Art, built on a reclaimed former industrial zone. The fact is that since the 1930’s, murals have been painted here by artists in places where the public can see them for free. Their content has not always been without controversy. Mexicans, Americans, Russians and Latinos have brought their distinctive styles to the art form and it’s displayed all in one city, charting both their people’s troubled history and also the growing pains of America as it grew into the country it is today.
The city is San Francisco.
The illustrative arts in San Francisco are well represented, ranging from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to the Cartoon Art Museum and the Friends of Photography at the Ansel Adams Centre. One aspect of the art scene which doesn’t receive a great deal of publicity and was therefore a source of surprise and delight to me recently, during my first visit to the city, is the amount of ‘free’ art that was available for all to see, both on the streets of the city and at its major tourist attractions, some of which has been created amidst great controversy.
There are nearly 600 murals in San Francisco with the richest concentration in the Mission District. This area has been predominantly Latino since the early 1970’s. Balmy Alley in particular has some of the oldest Mission District murals including early works of members of the Mujeres Muralistas, a group of women artists who pictured the beauty of their culture. Some murals of the PLACA group are here too (Placa means to leave a sign, make a mark). PLACA was a group of artists whose murals spoke out against U.S. intervention in Central America and the continuing struggle for peace in that region. Murals have always been a part of the Mexican community. The Chicano and civil-rights movements of the 1960’s inspired a new wave of muralists to continue the tradition of the great Mexican muralists, such as David Siquieros, Jose Clemente and Diego Rivera. The Precita Eyes Mural Arts Centre offers lectures and walking tours of the areas murals. Having seen some of the paintings, my own personal favourite is Five Hundred Years of Resistance by Isaias Mata which cloaks St Peter’s Church on
24th Street at Florida, with incredible images of people straining hard to stay alive and pictures of the oppressed protesting about war. Champions of the people such as Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and Bartolome de los Casas look out from the top of the mural.In the grounds of the Mission Dolores itself, there exists a wonderful tile mural by the famous Guillermo Granizo. It depicts the arrival in 1769 in San Francisco bay of the ship San Carlos. The main figure is the Franciscan friar Father Junipero Serra who symbolises the bringing of the good news of the gospel and who also has a plan of the mission in his hand.
The murals of the Coit Tower were produced in 5 months in 1934 by 26 local artists plus their assistants and depict the contemporary life of California. However, the powerful images of the economic injustices of the Great Depression depicted in them were deemed to be far too left wing by the ruling conservative elite of the city at the time. Running parallel to their creation, a dispute was simmering amongst the longshoreman that erupted into a full-scale strike just as the murals were being finished. This meant that all labour related issues were cast in a very bad light, so much so that the opening of the Tower was delayed and the very existence of the murals was thrown into doubt. Thankfully for today’s visitors, only hammer and sickle symbols were removed; the Tower opened and the murals remain as painted.
Produced in the same decade, the murals in the Beach Chalet within Golden Gate Park were not so controversial. As with the Coit Tower murals they were inspired by the visit to the city early in the 1930’s of Diego Rivera. The scenes of recreation painted in 1937 by Lucien Labaudt have been restored and show recreational activities that no one could find offensive.
Once the Rincon Annex Post Office, the Rincon Centre has been transformed into one of the city's foremost eating and shopping places. The 1930's Deco-style post office lobby has been preserved and murals by Russian born artist Anton Refregier meticulously restored. The 29 huge panels depict "The History of California" from the landing of Sir Francis Drake in 1579 to the end of World War II. They were done from 1947 to 1948 and were the focus of a congressional investigation for anti-American content. Refregier painted out several offensive parts of his panels to appease the US government and public. Subject matter includes "Finding Gold at Sutter's Mill", "Riot Scene, Civil War Days" depicting the riots which erupted in San Francisco during the Civil War between North and South supporters and "Beating the Chinese", showing mistreatment of the Chinese by the white labourers during the 1870s. Also worthy of artistic note is a dramatic 90 foot continuously cascading water column in the atrium.
The wall of the City Lights bookshop on Jack Kerouac Alley just off
Columbus Avenue has a representation of a mural destroyed in Chiapas State by the Mexican army. It depicts again the oppression of the people by heavily armed soldiers and is worth a detour, especially if you are heading to Fisherman’s Wharf and have stopped off at the Vesuvio Café next door for a coffee.
This will give you a chance to reflect that the great range of art in San Francisco is not confined to its world class Asian and European Art museums and to its modern art museum. The selection of street art is also world class and complements the museum art perfectly, yet there is an imbalance I feel in people’s knowledge of the two categories. I want to try and help correct this imbalance, especially as the street art says more about America and how it came to be the way it is today, than any collection of art from another part of the world ever can.