Monday, October 19, 2015

'Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition" (an art interlude)

"Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition" which just opened at the de Young museum recreates a portion of the art exhibition at the Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.  San Francisco’s Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) of 1915 represented one of the largest art exhibitions ever shown within the context of a world’s fair, arguably the most successful and the last of its kind.

James Ganz, curator of both "Jewel City" and the Auchenbach Foundations for the Grapic Arts at the Legion of Honor and his team at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco pulled together about 200 works from museums and private collections — paintings, prints, sculptures, murals and photographs — that reflect the range of American and European art shown circa 1915.

Ganz has spent much of the last three years researching the art of the fair and gathering works exhibited 100 years ago at the blockbuster exposition that reveled in American ingenuity and prowess and the resilience of the city risen from the ruins of the ’06 earthquake and fire.

Arthur Frank Mathews (American, 1860– 1945), “The Victory of Culture over Force (Victorious Spirit),” 1914. Oil on canvas. 119 × 238 in. San Francisco War Memorial

The expo hosted 11,403 works (more of less), housed in buildings constructed specifically for the expo. Painter Jules Guerin, the PPIE’s director of color and decoration controlled the decorations and the color scheme of the buildings. He even drew up marketing renderings of the fairgrounds for selling SF as a viable city to the rest of the world was an important part of the fair. Erasing the images of San Francisco as a smoking ruin was forefront on the minds of the fair’s business minded board of directors. 

A city within the city was created, stretching along SF’s long northern waterfront. In the center, an ornate forth-three-story tower sparked with more than one hundred thousand cut glass jewels. To the west, international buildings ended at a large racetrack and stadium. On the eastern end, a thoroughfare lined with fantastic midway concessions entered from Fillmore Street all the way to Van Ness Ave. The entire 635-acre site presented a magnificent spectacle to the over 19 million visitors who eventually passed through, its gates. 

All 48 states and numerous countries sent works to the fair. In fact, the onset of WW I meant that many of the warring nations sent priceless artworks to San Francisco to ensure their safety. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Art treasures of the Old World that otherwise never would have been removed from their places in famous galleries have been shipped to San Francisco on the United States Government collier Jason as a measure of protection in the event that opposing armies should happen to lay waste other famous cities as the cities of Belgium have been wasted.” (“Exhibits Are Epitome of World Progress,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 1915.)

In the middle of WW I, the radical art of the Italian Futurists made its American debut in San Francisco, Two years earlier, the Futurists had refused to participate in the jolting Armory show in New York because the term “futurist” was being applied to vanguard European art in general rather than denoting their motion-driven, form-splitting modern movement.

“I think they regretted not showing in the Armory show, because it got so much notoriety and generated so much interest,” says James Ganz, “So when they were asked to send their work to San Francisco, they said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’”

“To have a gallery of art as avant-garde as Futurism at a world’s fair is really unusual,” say Ganz. The emphasis was more on the status quo. “But if you think about it, a world’s fair is about the latest technology. At this one, they had an assembly line of Ford automobiles, they had X-rays. It was all about electricity and energy and mechanization — and that’s what Futurism is about. So this movement, which was quite radical, was, in a strange way, the most appropriate for a world’s fair."

“We’re trying to recapture in a way the feeling of seeing the art of the fair, something of the visitors’ experience. Putting people in front of the same works of art 100 years later is going to be kind of amazing.”

This time around, works by American Impressionists like Mary Cassatt and Julian Alden Weir and other prominent late 19th and early 20th century American artists such as Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler are displayed in contemporary museum style (instead of the studio display style popular in 1915). The final section features works by major European modernists like Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch and Austria’s Oskar Kokoschka, Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela and the Italian Futurists Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini.  The walls are painted in jewel-tones (dark teal, Venetian crimson, silvery ivory) and circular banquettes, in deep red, are in each gallery for the weary visitor.

William de Leftwich Dodge. "Atlantic and Pacific." 1914. Oil on canvas. San Francisco War Memorial

Ganz was excited about showing a decorative 50-foot-long mural painting by the American William de Leftwich Dodge, “Atlantic and Pacific,” the central panel of a huge six-panel work Dodge created for the exposition’s Tower of Jewels. It portrays the meeting of cultures west and east of the Panama Canal — there’s an ox-drawn prairie schooner and vaguely Asian figures in robes and headdresses — linked by the figure of a muscular male that art historian Anthony Lee calls “the allegorical form of Labor” (reportedly modeled on bodybuilder Charles Atlas). Owned by San Francisco’s War Memorial, it hasn’t appeared in a century. It's now prominently displayed in the huge entrance hall of the museum, although the visitor will have to crane his or her neck to see it.

Thanks to Norwegian-born J. Nilsen Laurvik, who represented his native Norway on the PPIE's International Jury of Awards, the fair also included a number of works that were considered radical at the time. Married to Elma Palos, a well connected Hungarian born beauty, Laurvik was able to use his connections to obtain contributions from various European nations, including the Hungarian avant-garde.

When a ship arrived via the Panama Canal two months after the fair’s opening, the PPIE quickly built the Annex near the Palace of Fine Arts to house its unexpected bounty of works from places like Finland, Hungary, Norway, Russia and Italy. A large portion of the Hungarian work remained on view in San Francisco after the close of the fair, but was later detained as “alien property” when the U.S. entered WWI. Some pieces were not returned to Hungary until 1924.

Thousands of prints were displayed throughout the Palace of Fine Arts and its Annex at the PPIE. As part of "Jewel City," a satellite exhibition, "Prints at the Fair," showing on the first floor features approximately seventy-five such works, including etchings, woodcuts and lithographs, in a thematic display that shows the various preoccupations of American artists in the early twentieth century.

More images here

Jewel City is on view Oct. 17, 2015 – Jan. 10, 2016. For tickets and more information visit

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