Thursday, December 23, 2010

What The Dog Is Doing: Holiday Edition 2

The Dog Biscuit: A Trip, And More Art

San Francisco has a decent set of arts museums -- The M. H. de Young Memorial Museum and the Palace of the Legion of Honor (collectively known as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF)), in addition to the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and the Asian Art Museum.

The de Young is in the center of Golden Gate Park, the Legion of Honor in the Presidio on the Pacific coast. Both house the City's collections of European and American art from the Medieval through, roughly, the end of the Second World War (though the de Young does have wings dedicated to collections of both Pacific, African and Meso-American art and artifacts).

I sleep later on weekends or vacations; Dogs do that. Getting up this morning, I just wanted to be in motion, not thinking a great deal (because I've been doing that too much lately, and it's done me little good), and decided to get out the door as fast as I could and take a two-bus trip to the de Young: Shower, shave, dress; kultur.

There's a traveling exhibition from Paris' Musee d'Orsay, "Beyond Impressionism", which I haven't yet seen, and won't until later in January, before it leaves (When I was there today, every timed tour group for the show was sold out, all day). All I wanted was to wander a little and see my favorites in the museum's general collection, hoping that looking at these images would be beneficial, centering, inspiring.

The Exposition And The Entrepeneur

In January of 1894, San Francisco had hosted a 'Midwinter International Exposition'. Michael H. de Young, editor and sole proprietor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was the chief proponent and organizer of the Midwinter fair; two years earlier, de Young had been part of the commission to decide on a location for what became the 1892 Chicago World Columbian Exposition, and wanted to create a similar draw for arts and culture (and money to the local economy) in San Francisco.

Midwinter International Exposition, 1894 (Photo: Wikipedia)

[For those familiar with Golden Gate Park, the current site of the de Young museum is on the left, the Academy of Sciences on the right. From the racetrack-style concourse and sunken central gardens, it's easy to see where this part of Golden Gate Park had its genesis.]

An Egyptian-style fine arts hall built for the Exposition (and a large Japanese garden) remained after it closed. Fourteen years later, after being damaged in the 1906 earthquake, the fine arts hall was repaired. In 1929, it was pulled down and replaced by a Spanish Renaissance structure -- which in turn was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, demolished, and replaced again by a new museum in 2005.

The De Young Museum As It Appeared From 1929 - 2001
(Photo: Lost SF [Blog By A Native About A Changing City])

The night of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in October of 1989, I accepted a ride from the San Mateo train station into The City -- the driver cut across Golden Gate Park at 9th Avenue, and the museum with its distinctive tower was clear in the moonlight. The entire city was without electricity, and I wondered about the building's alarms and whether any of the art had been damaged.

The de Young I saw in a Prussian blue and silver-grey outline that night was the museum that I'd effectively grown up with. Many of my memories of San Francisco, until I moved here, have Golden Gate Park and at least the outline this particular building as part of them. After that earthquake, the art was fine -- but in the photo above you can see the support bracing that visually announced the building's death sentence: It would have to be replaced.

Bequests, Building, And Public Beneficiaries

Aerial View Of The New de Young, Completed 2005

The history of building any large museum can't be separated from its evolution as an organization, though that's more complicated (it involves the relationship between governments, and established wealth as the traditional support for public culture, and the benefits to established wealth for doing so), and would take more space than it deserves here.

The short version is, after Michael H. de Young died in 1925, his family made a bequest of much of his private art collection to the City and County of San Francisco -- and the City's part of the bargain in accepting that bequest was to demolish the old fine arts hall left from the exposition de Young had helped create, replacing it with a new, Spanish-influenced building to display the man's collection for the public.

The de Young Museum remained a separate institution for over forty years, until the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) was established in 1972, with a charter to reorganize and reinvigorate San Francisco's public art collections. FAMSF redistributed the bulk of what had been de Young's European art to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, but keeping the Pacific and Meso-American collections at the de Young -- and, an impressive, predominantly Chinese collection of Asian art (a bequest from Avery Brundage, later moved to its own museum after 2001).

What the de Young had always offered the public was a good collection of art, the largest and best in California; excellent for a regional institution, but not competitive with those of museums in New York, Washington D.C., Paris, Tokyo, London, or Berlin. However, when John D. Rockefeller III died (1978), and later his wife, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller (1992), the tax advantages from bequesting portions of their large private art collections meant that some 100-plus paintings came to the de Young, and began to move its collection into world-class territory.

When it was clear the 1929 museum could not be retrofitted or repaired from damage in the 1989 earthquake, that de Young was demolished, and reincarnated in a museum that reflected changes in public architecture, and the times -- America's economy was at the height of the Go-Go, "Lil' Boots" Bush era.

The de Young Museum And Observation Tower (North View)

In 2005, the year the new de Young opened, our Bubble-fed economy had drifted as high as it would go. Public structures reflect something of the Zeitgeist of the times in which they're designed and built, and I wonder whether something of the baseless extravagance and exuberance of those times made it into the new de Young's architecture.

Losing the old de Young was (as it is for anyone who anchors memory and self to places and things) more than a disappointment; a sad little reminder of aging, and how the City where I've spent over half my life is changing. I try to see the new de Young as a bold statement, and with fresh eyes; but, frankly, I'm not there to see the outside of the building. The interior is what counts, and it's a well-designed set of spaces to view art, and display the painting collections very well.

So, let's go in; we'll walk around a little (don't worry; it's not some Sister Wendy / Simon Schama exercise; I'm not going to tell you what the paintings "mean") and we can stop to look at what (in one Dog's opinion) are a few beautiful and even exceptional works.

The Permanent Collection: A Select Look
All Images By Mongo / Photoshop

In the first gallery on the ground floor are the parts of the permanent collection that embrace primarily American painting from before the Great War, to the Sixties and beyond. This strays into the territory of the SFMOMA a bit, but no one minds.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Petunias (1925), Oil On Panel

O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986) had begun creating images of flowers, which remain one of her iconic trademarks, in 1924. She had just sold a similarly-sized work of lilies through the gallery, 291, owned by her husband, photographer Alfred Stiglitz, for $25,000 (nearly a quarter-million dollars today). She and Stiglitz had married in 1924, living and working in New York City and summering at the Stiglitz clan's upstate Lake George home. O'Keeffe wouldn't go to Taos for the first time until the late spring of 1929.

O'Keeffe was a meticulous painter, and depended on as smooth a transition as possible in blending values between hues of paint (you can see this in the purple - violet - red/violet hues in this work). And, finding the general frames of the period too ornate and distracting from the art, she frequently made her own, covering them with gesso and applying silver leaf. The frame on Petunias is one of her own.

Grant Wood, Dinner For Threshers (1934), Oil On Panel
(Click On Image For Larger Version)

Grant Wood spent only a short time in Europe in the early 1920's, but the effect of seeing the work of Northern German artists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries became the basis for his mature artistic style. Compare his most famous, iconic American painting, American Gothic, with the portraits of Holbein and Dürer and you'll see the connections.

The same year Dinner For Threshers was completed, Wood's work was featured in Time magazine in an article titled “The U.S. Scene”, and featured his art, along with fellow Midwesterners John Steuart Curry and Thomas Benton -- portraying the three men as the new heroes of an 'authentic American art'. The media began calling them founders of 'Regionalism' as a significant art movement -- while the art community in New York referred to them derisively as the "Prairie School".

Thomas Hart Benton, Susanna and the Elders (1938),
Oil and Egg Tempera On Panel

In the Pentateuch, Book of Daniel, a virtuous wife named Susanna bathes alone in her garden, watched by two lustful elders. They threaten to claim she was meeting a young man, unless she agrees to have sex with them. She refuses, and as she is about to be put to death for promiscuity, the young Daniel interrupts and demands the accusing elders be questioned, separately. Their stories don't match; Susanna is freed, the false accusers are put to death, and virtue triumphs.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889 - 1975) was the artists who made the cover of the December 24, 1934 issue of Time magazine, featuring Benton, Grant Wood and John Curry in “The U.S. Scene” article that established Regionalism as a recognized art movement.

Benton was born in Missouri; his father was a U.S. Congressman and uncle a U.S. Senator. Groomed for a political career, Benton rebelled -- he studied art in New York, and actually lived in the East most of his life. However, he was more politically conservative than his artistic contemporaries; when the Great Depression hit, Benton returned to the midwest, finding work through the WPA as a muralist, and continued developing his style in works with a regional theme, like Susanna and the Elders.

The work created a stir in 1938 when it was first displayed; even a retalling of a Biblical story, featuring a nude with clearly depicted pubic hair, was a little over the top for the folks in Kansas City.

Let's walk up the broad staircase to the second floor, where the bulk of the American collection is located. The Pacific and African collections are on this floor, too, but that's for another visit.

The Sargents

John Singer Sargent, Study Of Florentine Architecture (18XX)
Oil On Canvas

John Singer Sargent (1854 - 1925) was a rara avis of the art world: A person who seems born to do their art with near-perfection, right from the beginning, and as simply as breathing (in contemporary terms, painters like Bo Bartlett come to mind). It doesn't mean that Sargent never worked at his craft, but compared to the rest of us it's the difference between fine-tuning and real intense effort. The man had a genius.

Sargent (who was known as "John S. Sargent" during his life, and not his full name) was definitely a prodigy, and studied the en premiere coup (or, wet paint painted into wet paint) method under the French painter Carolus Duran in Paris. By design and virtuoso handling of paint, Sargent became within less than fifteen years one of the most sought-after portrait painters in the Western world.

Sargent, Portrait of Caroline de Bassano, Marquise d'Espeuilles
Oil On Canvas

Portraiture is one of the most difficult arenas of art: You have to produce not only a recognizable likeness of a person, but at the level at which Sargent was operating, a flatteringly recognizable one. He painted portraits of academics and scholars, other artists and friends -- but also the Old and Noveau monied grandees of the old World (principally England), and the New (the astoundingly rich American wealthy of the Gilded Era).

These were not people renowned for their patience, or egalitarianism, or in acting in an adult fashion when not getting exactly what they wanted, as they wanted it. Artists like Sargent were certainly valued, but no more than a designer or other employee they'd hire and pay a wage to produce a thing -- like a portrait.

Sargent, A Dinner Table At Night, (1884)
Oil On Canvas

Sargent knew his portraiture was something he could do for money -- I'd be an idiot not to make as much cash as I can, and he did: A full-length oil portrait by JSS at the height of his popularity in the mid-1890's could cost up to 1,000 Pounds in England ($4,880 1894 U.S. dollars, at an exchange rate of 1 Pound = 4.88 US -- and that Four Thousand-plus dollars is $126,000 in 2009 value. Get your own calculations here). Sargent produced scores of portraits; it was an age awash in wealth, and for a person with demonstrable artistic talent, he did very, very well.

But he knew he was a hired hand, and had a love-hate relationship both with painting his "paughtraits", as he referred to them, and in dealing with the overgrown children who demanded make me look beautiful when they weren't. That he wasn't focused (as Thomas Eakins was) to show the 'truth' of a client / sitter's personality allowed Sargent to make the plain, if not beautiful, then at least "not plain" -- part of a harmonious and bravura display of artistic technique.

Sargent, A Trout Stream In The Tyrol, (1914)
Oil On Canvas

At the outbreak of the Great War in August, 1914, Sargent and several friends were on a walking / painting tour of the Tyrolean mountains (the painting above was done then), and had no idea that the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was going to turn into anything. Europe had been at peace so long; the idea of war seemed "silly".

In early August, Sargent found himself and his English travel;ling companions briefly interred by the local Hapsburg authorities. It took a few weeks for them to be released -- Sargent as an American neutral, and his English friends as harmless (things were handled a bit differently, in the Old Days). Sargent returned to his home in London, and painted. What else could he do?

In the spring of 1918, he was asked to serve as an official War Artist for the British government close to the front. After the Armistice, and the peace that followed in 1919, Sargent was given a commission as a recognized great artist by the British to paint a picture that epitomized the four years of struggle their nation had been through. He produced two -- Some General Officers Of The Great War, a large group portrait of the British Empire's victorious generals; but -- though his English hosts had hoped for something in the heroic tradition of art from previous wars -- in his second work, Sargeant instead gave posterity Gassed, a truer vision of war as he had experienced it.

He continued producing work until the week he died, in 1925.

Thomas Anschutz, The Ironworker's Noontime, (1880)
Oil On Canvas

Thomas P. Anschutz (1851 - 1912) studied art at the National Academy of Design in New York City, and moved to Philadelphia in 1875 to study under Thomas Eakins. He entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1876 -- became Eakins's assistant in 1878, and (after Eakins resigned over disagreement with his teaching methods) his successor in 1886.

The Ironworker's Noontime is possibly my favorite painting in the de Young collection; it's the one I remember having an effect on my own art when I first saw it in the mid 1970's. Anschutz, as much a teller of truth in art as his mentor, Eakins, wanted to honestly depict the state of a group of ordinary American workers, and critical reaction at the time was almost uniformly negative.

Wikipedia notes: "One of the first American paintings to depict the bleakness of factory life, The Ironworkers' Noontime appears to be a clear indictment of industrialization. Its brutal candor startled critics, who saw it as unexpectedly confrontational -- a chilling industrial snapshot not the least picturesque or sublime."

In his time as director of the Pennsylvania Academy, Anshutz's students included Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, Charles Demuth, John Marin, and Charles Sheeler, among others.

Thomas Eakins, Portrait Of Frank Ray St. John, (1900)
Oil On Canvas

On the same wall as Anschutz's Noontime is a portrait by his old mentor, Thomas Eakins (1844 - 1916).

Eakins was known in his lifetime primarily as a teacher of art, who painted. He sold few paintings during his lifetime, and his strict adherence to getting to the truth of a thing through his painting meant many wealthy Philidelphians who engaged him to paint their portraits ended up returning them to Eakins as unsatisfactory.

In 1886, as a director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Eakins was embroiled in a controversy over his use of male, and female, nude models for drawing classes, and some allied incidents. The parents of local students in Philidelphia were concerned that Eakins was a corrupting influence (artists being equated with libertines and radical thought is nothing new); the board of directors dismissed him. Eakins was deeply embittered by the act, and never really recovered from it.

It was another twenty years before Eakins' talent as an artist began to be recognized -- belatedly, and not in monetary terms -- and not until well after his death in 1916 that his work was seen as important contributions to American art.

UPDATE: This post is still under construction -- there will be additional works from the de Young added shortly.

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