‘Jewel City’ is a gem of an art show

Nov.  2, 2015

Michael Raffety

The last romantic remnant of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition is the Rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco’s Marina District.

Encircling the dome is the frieze, “The Struggle for the Beautiful.” By Bruno Louis Zimm. Separating the three repeated friezes in the attic of the rotunda are copies of the “Guardian of the Arts” by Ulrich H. Ellerhusen.

“Struggle For the Beautiful” symbolizes for me the exhibit “Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition” now on view at the de Young Art Museum through Jan. 10, 2016.

The show features 200 works, primarily paintings, from 70 international museums and private collections. It took three years of studying 50 original publications from the original exposition plus tracking down the art.

The original Palace of Fine Arts and its Annex exhibited 11,403 works of art. This is in addition to the paintings and sculpture brought from France for the French Pavilion. That French Pavilion so impressed Alma de Brettville Spreckels that she obtained permission from the French government to copy their pavilion (modeled after the Legion of Honor) to build a copy of it for an art museum in Lincoln Park that opened in 1924.

In addition to the paintings and a few sculptural pieces in the current de Young show, “Jewel City,” there are two side exhibits. One features 73 photographs and 75 prints from the Achenbach Collection. The curator of the Achenbach Collection is Jim Gantz, who is also the lead curator for the “Jewel City” art show.

Distilling 11,403 paintings, sculpture, prints and photographs down to 200 pieces that also includes works from France is definitely a “Struggle for the Beautiful.” It is ultimately a successful struggle and a beautiful art show, including the prints and photography auxiliary shows at the de Young.

Among the 11,403 works of art in the Palace of Fines Arts were sections reserved for 12 nations that had their own sections in the Palace or the Annex.

The benefit of the show catalog is that it includes 300 illustrations in 400 pages.

Sixty percent of the American paintings in the 1915 show were impressionistic. One of my favorites is an impressionistic painting of the arches of the Court of the Four Seasons. The impact of the 1915 art exhibition is still being felt today as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco continue to acquire works of art that were originally bought during the show and its continuation through 1924 after the rest of the Exposition had been torn down and the land returned to its owners or the military.

The Rodin sculptures, beginning with The Thinker in the courtyard of the Legion of Honor Art Museum, were bought by Mrs. Spreckels from the French Pavilion in 1915.

The Palace of Fine Arts itself racked up more than $267,000 in art sales during the fair.

Among the paintings on display at the Palace of Fine Arts from Jan. 1 to May, 1916, were the work of 800 artists shown by the San Francisco Art Association. The association took over operation of the Palace of Fine Arts until it was finally closed in 1924. This group and the museum board it formed eventually became the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The art that really got the most commentary in 1915 were the Italian Futurist paintings, six of which are in the current show.

An absolutely fabulous James Tissot painting of a woman in a pale tangerine colored flowing dress and fan being admired as she make her way past men in black tails , white ties and white gloves was in the French section of the Palace of Fine Arts and is part of the Jewel City show at the de Young.

Also of note in the de Young show is a reprise of a French Pavilion painting of the Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet – one of a series of 30.

Another painting that particularly enchanted me was Summer Night by Franz von Stuck. It is dancing revelers arm in arm at the bottom of the painting with the stars and clouds taking up three-fourths of the composition. German paintings came from a captured German ship during the war and were held as spoils of war until after the First World War ended.

The entire PPIE featured about 20,000 art works, most of them plaster on burlap statues painted to look like bronze. Most of these were destroyed, but the small maquettes from which the large plaster sculptures were made were placed in 200 crates and given to the city of San Francisco. “Their whereabouts today are unkown,” according to a 2005 edition of “Images of America: San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition.”



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