A fabulous collection of prints at Legion of Honor

Michael Raffety

June 11, 2010

Having lived in San Francisco for seven years, I’ve been to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor quite a few times. The whole area is fascinating, where one can look back at the Golden Gate Bridge from near the ocean side, Lincoln Golf Course, Lands End, the bow of the USS San Francisco and the Cliff House. My friends and I would go to the Cliff House for breakfast and Ramos Fizzes after playing handball on the outdoor courts at San Francisco State.

But it wasn’t until I went to a press preview June 4 for a special show that I learned that the Legion of Honor is actually a three-quarter scale copy of the Palais de la Legion d’Honeur in Paris. Been to Paris twice and never knew there was a Legion of Honor museum there. In Paris it is more of a history museum about the medal named the Legion of Honor and other medals and people who won the award. In San Francisco, though it is all about art. And, I have to add, the Lincoln Highway ends in the plaza in front of the Legion of Honor, a building donated by Alma Spreckles, wife of the sugar magnate.

The special exhibit is Impressionist Paris: City of Light. Admission to the show at the Legion is free for those who buy tickets to the Impressionist art show at the De Young Museum, if you go to the Legion on the same day. Make it a different day and admission is $10.

The show draws on the print collection of the Legion and the De Young and is a brilliantly conceived corollary to the Impressionist paintings on loan from the Musee d’Orsay. The real eye opener for me was the collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist prints, etchings and aquatints. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, to name a few — all did prints and many exhibited them among the paintings at the Impressionist shows that began in 1874.

The Impressionists unofficially called themselves by the sobriquet an unfriendly art critique gave the group. But their official name for themselves was the Societe Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc.

As their name implies the group included printmakers (graveurs), and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, according to its director, John Buchanan Jr., has the largest collection of graphic arts in the western United States. For this show it also borrowed some key pieces and made several important acquisitions.

Included among the prints from well known painters are prints by those who primarily worked on prints, such as Felix Vallotton, Edouard Vuillard, Felix Braquemont, Adolphe Martial Potemont, Alphone Mucha. And, of course, the great poster artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec fills the last gallery.

The exhibit at the Legion features more than 180 prints, drawings, photograph, paintings and illustrated books. The bulk of it comes from the Legion’s collection from the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, originally set up in 1948. That collection has 100,000 works covering 500 years of graphic arts. The museum added the Rockefeller Collection to that as well as several other significant collections.

The City of Light show is not all black and white. There are some stunning color prints, including one of Dega’s famous woman leaping in and out of bathtubs. Cezanne has a color lithograph of bathers that has similarities to a large painting of bathers hanging in the Philadelphia Art Museum.

The prints helped the Impressionists to make money. The increasing popularity of prints coincided with art collecting, dealers and the new consumer society that was arising near the end of the 19th century.

Many of the prints in the show came from albums.

“The idea of the group album of original prints by contemporary artists available at a modest price gained ground in the coming decades,” wrote show curator James A. Ganz, PhD, in the catalog for the show. “Originality and modernity came to be the two key selling points in the marketing of such productions. In describing a print, the term originale had dual connotations: first, that its composition did not reproduce a work of art in another medium but was invented specifically for the print itself; and second that the work was a bona fide lithograph, etching, or woodcut rather than a photo-mechanical reproduction.”

This is Ganz’ third book and it is well written and surprisingly quick and easy to read. He is the curator for the Achenbach collection.

The book follows the show’s organization, which starts out with photographs of old Paris taken only a quarter century after the invention of photography by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in 1839. The etchings and photographs document the dark and narrow streets of old Paris before the great urban renovation of Napoleon III transformed it into a city of wide boulevards and vistas and a city of light, specifically gas street lamps, also documented by photography.

A small room features newspaper political cartoons of the time and the work of the great visual humorist Honore Daumier, among others.

The catalog includes 100 images for the exhibition in 156 pages. It is only available in hardcover, but the price is reasonable at $29.95. The reproduction is outstanding, much better quality than the Birth of Impressionism catalog for the De Young show, which relied on obviously much older photography from the Musee d’Orsay. This catalog for the Legion’s show appeared to me to employ fresh photography of the artwork, a German publisher and a Hong Kong printer. The reproduction in both black and white and color is all spot-on.

Admission to the Legion of Honor is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for youths 13-17 and students with college IDs. Admission is free if you already paid for the Impressionist show at the De Young or are age 12 and under. To get there take Geary Street west and turn right on 34th Street. The museum is closed on Mondays. The show runs through Sept. 26.

Allow yourself time to tour the galleries upstairs. If you have seen it before, see it again, because the artwork gets rotated in and out of storage, especially in the gallery that features MonetÕs lily pond painting.

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