ART ON THE WESTERN FRINGE
The centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition
When was the last time you set foot in a world’s fair? Maybe it was at the futuristically named Century 21 Exposition, for which Seattle constructed its Space Needle. That was in 1962. Perhaps the New York World’s Fair in 1963-1964? Just possibly Expo 67 — in 1967, logically — in Montreal? Chances are good that you missed Expo 2015, which closed at a repurposed industrial site 10 miles outside Milan on Oct. 31 to widespread disregard, and that you have not yet booked your reservation for Expo 2017 two summers hence in Astana, Kazakhstan. World’s fairs are not what they once were.
It is hard for us to fathom the excitement the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) generated exactly a century ago, when crowds flocked to San Francisco to take the pulse of what was new and happening in the world and to glimpse where the future might lead. The city had fought hard for the right to present the fair, which ran from Feb. 20 through Dec. 4, 1915. It ostensibly celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which had occurred the preceding August, but for San Franciscans it announced to their 100 million fellow Americans — and to the world — that their city had risen triumphantly from the ashes of the devastating earthquake and fires of 1906. In her recently published book San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Heyday), Laura A. Ackley cites the statistics: “Total attendance was calculated to be 18,876,438, far exceeding the most optimistic predictions of twelve million. More than 500,000 visitors had traveled from east of the Rockies. It was estimated that more than $45 million had been injected into California’s economy from outside the state (about $2.1 billion in 2012).” Practically the moment the fair ended, developers set to work on much of the fairground’s 635-acre plot, which they turned into what is today the city’s Marina district.
Visitors marveled at the fair’s architecture, decorated in an approved, jewel-toned color scheme rich in oxidized-copper green, Pompeiian red, sky blue, and California-poppy yellow. They gaped at its illuminations, which included nighttime exhibitions of “painting in color” with electric floodlights — a novel idea just then. They were amazed by wonders of technology and commerce, including an immense conical tower from the Heinz 57 Pure Food Products company that dedicated a tier to each of its 57 varieties, and an Underwood typewriter, 15 feet tall and 21 feet wide, that batted out news bulletins in characters that were 3 inches tall. They could pick up a telephone receiver and hear the real-time voice of an actual person in New York City, since transcontinental telecommunications had been inaugurated just a month before the opening of the fair. They engaged in their era’s version of “virtual travel” by visiting the pavilions of the American states and foreign nations, they listened to concerts by world-famous soloists and musical ensembles, and they let their hair down on the Joy Zone, which was the exposition’s amusement park.
And they looked at art, art, and more art. The Palace of Fine Arts, which is one of the few PPIE structures to survive to this day on its original site, was the principal focus for art lovers, along with its neighboring annex; together those structures housed 11,403 works of fine art. But thousands of pieces that did not fall under the direct purview of the fine arts department were on display within other palaces and pavilions, as well as outdoors, bringing the total number of artworks to some 20,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs, with a scattering of tapestries, art pottery, glasswork, and what have you thrown in for good measure.
Among the San Francisco museum shows commemorating the PPIE this year, the most ambitious is Jewel City: Art From San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which opened in mid-October at the de Young Museum (a division of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) in Golden Gate Park and remains on view through Jan. 10, 2016. Art lovers passing anywhere near San Francisco would be ill-advised to miss it. In fact, the show would fully justify a trip in its own right.
Some of the museum’s publicity tries to simplify the exhibit by saying that it “re-creates” the art exhibition of the PPIE, but that is far from the mark. To re-create it would practically require rebuilding the fair itself. What the show actually does is reassemble, for the first time since a century ago, more than 200 essential works that were shown at the PPIE — works now owned by more than 70 international museums and private collections — and organize them into a self-standing exhibition that is enriching and satisfying as an experience in and of itself. The show begins in
total attendance was calculated to be 18,876,438, far exceeding the most optimistic predictions of twelve million.
— Laura A. Ackley, author of “San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915”
the museum’s lobby, where visitors encounter William de Leftwich Dodge’s 46-foot-long mural Atlantic and
Pacific, one of 35 large-scale murals commissioned by the PPIE. It had been installed in an archway beneath the Tower of Jewels, the fair’s architectural centerpiece, and for the de Young’s show it has been unfurled for the first time since it was removed at the exposition’s conclusion, again proclaiming the central theme of how the Panama Canal linked East and West.
Gracing the cover of the accompanying catalog, a weighty and elegantly produced tome published jointly by Fine Arts Museums of California and the University of California Press, is a detail from another mural, The Victory of Culture Over Force (Victorious
Spirit) by California artist Arthur Frank Mathews, well known to aficionados of the Arts and Crafts style. A catalog essay by Anthony W. Lee describes Mathews as “alternately revered as one of the few muralists in the city worth his salt and dismissed as a fusty traditionalist whose opinions on painting (and most everything else) bordered on the cranky.” For all that, his was an essential piece in the lineup of murals, setting its Classicized figures against a distinctly California-looking background that includes structures from the PPIE itself. This announces an essential PPIE subtext: that the American West was a force to be reckoned with. One encounters it repeatedly, unmistakable in the iconography of two oils prepared by Frank Vincent DuMond as studies for his mural The Westward March of Civilization. In the first, The Departure From the East, rather drably garbed characters set forth in grim determination; in the second, Arrival in the West, they clap and cheer as they are welcomed into a Pacific landscape abundant with fruit and flowers.
The representation of American artists at the fair was impressive, and at the de Young, one strolls through a who’s who of their paintings: Duveneck, Whistler, Eakins, Henri, Chase, Homer, Twachtman, Metcalfe, Frieseke, and so many others. Not every piece is magnificent, though many are; as a whole, the selections convey the technical merits and artistic ideals of the American art world of 1915. The taste is largely East Coast, although one encounters a pair of striking Southwestern scenes: Arthur Wesley Dow’s The Enchanted Mesa and Francis McComas’ Navajo Gateway, Arizona. Chief curator James A. Ganz achieves a powerful moment by devoting an entire wall of a gallery to an enlarged black-and-white photograph of one of the original rooms, densely hung in salon style. Among the canvases in the photo one spots Quarry, Evening by Daniel Garber of the New Hope colony; turn around, and you see precisely that painting in glorious autumnal hues hanging on the opposite wall. As the the critic Michael Williams wrote in a “Special Exposition Number” of the magazine Art
and Progress, “The greatness of the San Francisco show is simply that it does show, more comprehensively and adequately than ever before, the whole of American art.” That catholicity extended to what became one of the PPIE’s most famous, and then notorious, pieces: The End of the Trail, the sculpture by James Earle Fraser that depicts an exhausted Indian warrior slumped atop his equally depleted horse. It is represented at the de Young by a small bronze replica, but in 1915 the fullsize sculpture stood right at the center of things, in front of the Tower of Jewels. There its sense of defeat was emphasized by its heavily editorializing placement directly across from Solon Borglum’s The American
Pioneer, which portrays an energetic, exultant frontiersman, rifle at the ready, astride his armored steed. The two added up to a study in Manifest Destiny that surely would outrage viewers a century later. American Modernism, though just emerging, was represented through such painters as Sloan, Glackens, and William Zorach, gathered in a gallery that conservative critics labeled the “chamber of horrors.”
French art had a huge presence at the PPIE, both in the Palace of Fine Arts and the French Pavilion. (A few years afterward, the latter would serve as the architectural template for another major San Francisco museum, the Legion of Honor, which to this day houses its founding patron’s collection of Rodin sculpture.) The examples from Courbet, Monet, Cézanne, and Pissarro assembled by the de Young may not be from the very top drawer, but they are at least good pieces and, in this context, they help clarify where the American Impressionists were
finding their inspiration. It was rather a miracle that France was represented at all. World War I had broken out in August 1914, and for a while the feasibility of the world’s fair seemed imperiled. Quite a few European countries had to withdraw, but France was among those that forged ahead. With Belgium under German occupation, France allotted some of its space to artworks from that nation, mostly spirited out from Paris dealers who happened to have works by Belgians in their inventories. Thus does the de Young display Garden of the Generalife in Granada by the Belgian Théo van Rysselberghe, a characteristically floriferous neo-Impressionist canvas that doubles as a case study in transnational generosity.
It is astonishing that artists from central and northern Europe were represented at all, given the circumstances, but many forward-looking artworks from Austria and Hungary made it to San Francisco. Fifteen portraits by Oskar Kokoschka arrived (a proto-Expressionist one of the composer Egon Wellesz is included in the de Young show), as did about 300 works by Norwegians and nearly 500 from Hungary. After the PPIE closed, many of these works remained stranded in bureaucratic limbo as enemy property, with the Hungarian and Finnish pieces staying in San Francisco until repatriation was finally arranged in 1923. “Pointillist paintings, works by the Nabis, portraits by Oskar Kokoschka, and fifty-seven prints by Edvard Munch mystified many,” writes Scott A. Shields in a catalog essay, “but nothing primed the masses for the gallery of Italian Futurists.” They are well represented as the final word at the de Young; in fact, Gino Severini’s Spherical Expansion of
Light, Centripetal — colorful, fractured, seemingly exploding — occupies the back cover of its catalog. Such riotous Italian works fleetingly suggest the sense of vigor and urgency experienced by many attendees in 1915, and they usher viewers out to the gift shop in a state of aesthetic ebullience.
But there’s more, and one of the few complaints one might have with Jewel City is that it would be easy for visitors to overlook three ancillary exhibits elsewhere in the building. Just around the corner from the main show, along the route to the lavatories, is the Media Room, in which are projected still and moving images of goings-on at the PPIE, sure to charm and delight. Daredevil pilot Art Smith does loop-the-loops in his biplane, and Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison ham it up in a motor car. Another two rooms upstairs expand on the PPIE experience. One houses Portals of the Past: The Photography of Willard Worden; Worden was an official photographer at the fair, had his own exhibit booth there, and was especially drawn to nocturnal shots in which concealed arc lamps made the pavilions seem to glow.
The other would be especially easy to miss: Prints at the Fair, oddly achieved through the far end of a Motherwell gallery. Some 2,000 American prints were available for viewing at the fair, some on permanent display, others rotated in cases. In Art and Progress, critic Charles Olmstead characterized the compilation as “the most complete and representative collection of prints that has yet been made in the country.” At the fair, they were contained in six galleries: two for black-and-white prints, one for color, one for wood engravings, and single-artist galleries for Whistler and Pennell (the latter serving also as chairman of the prints jury). The de Young limits its print section to just one room divided into three sections: Whistler etchings, prints depicting urban subjects, and color prints (mostly woodblocks). Pride of place among the color woodblock prints goes to two by Gustave Baumann,
Harden Hollow and Plum and Peach Blossom, both of unusually large size at about 20 by 26 inches, and both from 1912 (when he was working in Brown County, Indiana). These are two of the eight Baumann woodblock prints that earned gold medals at the PPIE, just three years before he moved to New Mexico and became the paterfamilias of Santa Fe’s community of artists. Although our state, only recently admitted into the Union at that time, did not maintain a pavilion in San Francisco, it does a New Mexican’s heart good to see the works of one of our seminal artistic citizens so grandly on display.
“Jewel City: Art From San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, runs through Jan. 10, 2016, with the “Portals of the Past” section continuing through Feb. 14. See deyoung.famsf.org.
Edvard Munch: Moonlight I, 1896, color woodcut, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; top,
Panorama of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915, gelatin silver print with applied color, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; opposite page, left, Daniel Garber: Quarry, Evening, 1913, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art; right, James Earle Fraser: The End of the Trail, modeled circa 1894, cast circa 1925, bronze, The Rockwell Museum, Corning, New York
Prince Paolo Troubetzkoy: Lady Constance Stewart Richardson, 1914, bronze, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; above, Winslow Homer: Saco Bay, 1896, oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts; opposite page, bottom, William de Leftwich Dodge, Atlantic
and Pacific, 1914, oil on canvas, San Francisco War Memorial; above, Thomas Eakins:
The Concert Singer, 1890-1892, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art