Review: Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exhibition

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James A. Ganz, ed, Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2015, ISBN 978-0-520-28718-1, 400pp.

In 1915, San Francisco held a world’s fair to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition declared the joining of Atlantic and Pacific and pointed to a new American civilization that looked both East and West and played a central role in an increasingly global culture. The apotheosis of the ‘White City’ type of American world’s fair, it was more colorful than its 1892 Chicago inspiration and soaked in the warm sunlight and mysterious mists of San Francisco’s Mediterranean climate. The fair’s campus was a series of large classical courtyards designed by America’s most prominent architects including McKim, Mead, and White, architects of Columbia University; Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial; Carrere & Hastings, architect of the New York Public Library; Bernard Maybeck, patriarch of the Bay Area’s Arts and Crafts designers; and Arthur Brown, Jr, architect of San Francisco’s shining new Beaux-Arts Civic Center. The Fair’s central tower was set with thousands of glass jewels so that it shimmered in the sun; fountains splashed in courtyards filled with lush planting; the color palette that unified the buildings was designed by leading color theorist, Jules Guérin and illuminated by colored spotlights at night. This was American utopian design at its best, the sort of design in emulation of which C.H. Reilly had designed the curriculum at the Liverpool School of Architecture. Monumental while being highly functional, C. H. Reilly declared that in American classicism the greatest aspects of European design had been reduced to their universal essence.[1] The bloody sunset of the Edwardian era may have been taking place in Europe, but here, on the sunny shores of California, was its last great party –  a resplendent Wizard of Oz vision of California’s cultural capital, newly resurrected after the 1906 Earthquake – a grand classical city rising on the ashes of Gold Rush shanties and the gaudily exuberant wooden houses that had previously made San Francisco a mockery in Eastern art circles.

The Studio observed that while in the Old World there was destruction, in the New World there was construction, declaring the Panama Canal to be humanity’s greatest constructive achievement thus far.[2] The Panama Pacific International Exhibition was, the writer implied, the most important art event of the year. The fair had amassed the largest fine art display of any exposition in history, upwards of 20,000 objects on loan from American and European collections or specially commissioned for the fair itself. Many works had come directly from London’s Anglo-American Exhibition of the previous year and others had been shown in the New York Armory Show. The Studio explained that other American art shows taking place in 1915 were expected to be weak, because everything good was in San Francisco.[3] The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was the occasion for the first major American display of the work of the Italian Futurists and of Edvard Munch. John Singer Sargent’s Madame X was shown for the first time in the United States and sold to the Met right afterwards. It was also the largest retrospective of American art that had ever been held, with historical galleries of American, European, and Asian art laying out the context in which the American School had developed. This primary display was centered around the Palace of Fine Arts, a vast gallery building entered via a thousand-foot-long portico lined with willow trees and statues of weeping maidens. Behind the Palace was an annex building where the more avant-garde European art was displayed (considered outside the main stream of the American School and its influences). Art was also displayed in the commercial exhibition spaces, as decoration for buildings and grounds, and in national pavilions in which various foreign governments spotlighted their ‘national schools.’ It is this great art display that the book is about. In 2015, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco organized a vast reunion of as much of the art that was displayed at the original exhibition as could be located and loaned. The Panama-Pacific International Exhibition the curators argued, that was second in importance only to the New York Armory Show for changing the course of early twentieth-century American art. And perhaps they are right. It is certainly an exhibition that scholars of the period should be familiar with, and this book provides the first significant study of it.

The book, like so many catalogues, is a series of essays by the exhibition curators. It is beautifully produced and illustrated, an absolutely gorgeous production that evokes the beauty of the fair itself. Large numbers of artworks are reproduced in full-color, and it provides the material needed for scholars to understand what was on show at the fair and who the historical actors were in its creation. The essays themselves vary in quality and often repeat the same material. Perhaps the idea is that any one of them could stand alone. Here is the information needed for further scholarly work, and the essays point to many interesting phenomena which could form the basis of further study.

Jewel City is really about immersing the reader in the atmosphere of the most beautiful of American expositions. That the recapturing of the aesthetic world of 1915 was the goal of the San Francisco Museums is emphasized by the fact that they also issued an album of music that was either commissioned for the fair or known to have been performed there. (The compilation is heavy on John Philip Sousa-esque marches and ragtime).

But what of British art at the Exposition? The British Government chose not to participate officially — they were busy with the war and angry about the high tariffs the United States was levying at the Panama Canal — so there was no British pavilion to focus the attention of fair-goers on British art. However, the vast influence of London on American art of the period, meant that British art would not be entirely absent. American expatriates John Singer Sargent, Joesph Pennell, and Edwin Austin Abbey were all celebrated with their own galleries in the Palace of Fine Arts, an honor granted to few living artists. Frank Brangwyn managed to send almost eighty works for display and also produced vast murals on canvas to decorate one of the courtyards. The British art that was shown was well received by American critics. Brangwyn was awarded a Medal of Honor. Laura Knight’s Self Portrait of 1913, which had raised eyebrows in London for showing a woman painting a nude model, was awarded a gold medal in California.  Joseph Pennell sold the second-largest number of prints of any artist at the fair, and the gallery devoted to the late James Abbott McNeill Whistler garnered more critical praise than any other display in the Palace of Fine Arts. However, because British art had such a small presence, when compared, for instance, to the heroic attempts of the French Government to smuggle art across submarine-patrolled waters in the USS Jason, it appears in the book only marginally. And that in itself says something. While solidly well-reviewed, one wonders if the absence of an official presence for British art at the Fair sped its declining influence on American art.

David Frazer Lewis, January 2017

[1] CH Reilly, Masters of Architecture: McKim, Mead, and White, London: Ernest Benn, 1924, p.17.

[2] Anonymous, “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco 1915,” The Studio, 1915, vol 63, p.99.

[3] Anonymous, “Studio Talk – Philadelphia,” The Studio, 1915, vol 65, p.64.

 

 

 

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