|Home -> Other California History Books -> Impressions of the Art at the Panama-Pacific Exposition - American Painting|
Picture a colonnade over a thousand feet in length sweeping majestically around the tree-lined marge of a gleaming lagoon, with, behind the colonnade, a vast, crescent-shaped structure containing a hundred or more separate rooms, and you have some idea of the Palace of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Viewed from the opposite side of the lagoon, the rotunda fronting the encircling columns recalled, in its deeply romantic suggestion, Böcklin's Island of the Dead. The sense of antiquity was there, the silence, the remoteness from the world of actuality, and the summons to a realm where one surrenders to the magic of a mysterious, indefinable beauty. Such was the appeal exercised by this memorable fusion of elements traditional, natural, and frankly inspirational.
The Palace of Fine Arts seemed indeed an island set amid a shimmering sea of colour, a haven where the spirit sought grateful repose. This island was not however Die Toteninsel of Teutonic imagination, nor was it the Cythère of more ingratiating Gallic fancy. If it was impossible to repress a feeling of exaltation as you approached this building which, on the outside, promised so much, it was equally difficult to dispel a sense of disillusion on examining its contents as a whole. In the rooms devoted to American painting classic calm and romantic reverie gave place, despite belated attempts at rehabilitation, to something closely resembling confused incompletion. While there were certain sequestered spots where beauty was successfully wooed and won, the combined impression was far from inspiring. We all realized that there were mitigating circumstances, that it was difficult to assemble an exhibition of pictures during a world crisis, not to say cataclysm, yet nevertheless such restrictions did not apply so rigorously to the American section. Moreover, in general arrangement and not infrequently in questions of specific choice, the native display proved inferior to many of the foreign rooms. The average of merit attained by Sweden, for example, and the installation of the Swedish, Dutch, and Italian exhibits were notable instances of what, despite unpropitious conditions, the Europeans were able to accomplish. Even a casual stroll through the galleries was sufficient to convince one that in the matter of ambitious international art exhibitions we are moving consistently backward. The World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 was superior to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis in 1904, which, in turn, was manifestly better than the recent Panama-Pacific.
It is doubtless ungracious to possess a somewhat extensive perspective, or to recall with vivid freshness how paintings are displayed at the Grosse Berliner, the Secession exhibitions of Berlin and Vienna, in the more characteristic capitals of Prague and Budapest, or in such cities as Stockholm, Düsseldorf, Dresden, Munich, and Venice. Modern pictorial emplacement originated in Brussels at the Libre esthétique, and from thence passed on to Austria and the rest of Europe. Though historically part of the decorative regeneration which derived from William Morris, neither the English nor the Americans grasped its significance, nor can they be said to do so to the present day. Quite obviously we Anglo-Saxons are a generation behind in such matters. Burlington House in London and the Vanderbilt Gallery in New York are annually the scene of the most antiquated hanging throughout the civilized world. A few institutions, such as the Brooklyn Museum, the Albright Gallery, Buffalo, the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, and the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, have made measurable advances during the past few seasons, yet even so, the essential principles of appropriate installation are with us but imperfectly appreciated and ineffectually practised.
Assiduous amateurs of contemporary painting encountered little that was novel in the American section of this same classico-romantic Palace of Fine Arts. We shall not, at this date, attempt an inventory of the several rooms, but rather, if possible, summarize the salient features of the exhibition as a whole. The task is a simple one. It is primarily a question as to whether the general public did or did not leave the building having experienced that great aesthetic adventure so eagerly looked forward to. Did they discover something new, or was their customary attitude toward art merely amplified and diversified? In brief did the director in his selection and disposal of the thousands of works pictorial and plastic enforce, or did he enfeeble, the fine emotional fervour, the thrill of expectancy created by the architect?
After an extended study of the public, as well as the paintings, one is face to face with the conclusion that there was something amiss with what may be generically termed the San Francisco system. Despite a presumable predisposition for the production of their countrymen and the personality of the various artists, our good people from West or East did not experience the requisite reaction from the American section. The reason is not far to seek. Whatever be the extenuating circumstances, and in every exhibition there are extenuating circumstances, the collective impression has proved inconclusive. Starting with the magnanimous, not to say merciful, assumption that all which met the eye was worthy of inclusion in such an exhibition, there was still much to be desired. The methods employed failed to disclose the decorative significance of a given canvas. We were shown what a picture was, but not what a picture was for. Suspended in dual, sometimes even triple, alignment, the effect was stupefying rather than stimulating. Save in a few instances the backgrounds were dull, grimy, and unprepossessing, and it was hence impossible for many of the works to appear to advantage.
The situation would seem to resolve itself into a question of imperfect sympathy. A painting either is or is not an expression of creative emotion, something into which the artist has put his version of the visible world or his vague aspiration toward that great, beckoning beauty which is the heritage of all people in all ages. To distribute canvases about the walls like so many unrelated specimens is not to accord painting its requisite spiritual or social, not to speak of aesthetic, consideration. It is true that the practice is a venerable one, yet it is also true that it is being modified and rectified in virtually every country from Scandinavia to South America. There seems, however, a certain fatality attached to us when we appear beside the foreigners on the occasion of important international exhibitions. One recalls with pathos the moribund American room at the Venice Exposition of 1909, and the more pretentious fiasco at the Roman Esposizione Internazionale two years later. We do not realize the importance of proper spacing or proper setting for our vast and varied pictorial output. Our exposition and museum directors are doing little along these lines to bridge the ever-widening abyss between the producing artist and the aspiring public. They continue to employ methods that are obsolete. They fail, above all, to appreciate the fundamental affinity between beauty and utility.
As may be inferred from the foregoing, the best features of the American section were to be found not in the galleries devoted to miscellaneous work, but in those dedicated to individual masters, of which there were, fortunately, not a few. Of the deceased painters, separate rooms or walls were allotted to Whistler, Edwin A. Abbey, Winslow Homer, John La Farge, Theodore Robinson, John H. Twachtman and others, while prominent among the living thus to be honoured were Frank Duveneck, Gari Melchers, William M. Chase, John S. Sargent, J. Alden Weir, Edmund C. Tarbell, Childe Hassam, and Edward W. Redfield. The insubstantial art of Whistler, so exacting, so persistent in its search for preciosity, was seen to special advantage in the fulllength likeness of Mrs. Huth and a series of panels from the collection of Charles L. Freer, Esq. The room was small, and, with the exception of the portrait already mentioned, the subjects were restricted in size. The effect was none the less one of manifest propriety. It was a secluded little sanctuary to taste, a corner where one could commune with a frail though ardent spirit, one whose legacy to posterity is slender, yet imperishable.
We shall not attempt to characterize each of the above artists. Abbey, who never found paint a congenial or spontaneous medium, and La Farge, who ranks at best as a studious, eclectic amateur, call for scant comment. The robust naturalism of Winslow Homer was but insufficiently indicated, though one had, in compensation, a serene, clear-toned wall from which shone the radiant masterpieces of Theodore Robinson. The pioneer American impressionist painted modest themes - bits of winding canal, glimpses of white cottage nestled against green hillside, peasant girls musing under spreading apple bough or stretched prone upon the grass. There was no pose, no hint of pretence here. Robinson went to the heart of the scene, however simple and unambitious it may have seemed. Out of little he made much. He painted light, air, and colour. The purest lyric talent we have thus far produced, he sang a song steeped in outdoor brightness and objective tranquillity. Starting from a somewhat similar point of view, that which, in Robinson, remained analysis, became with Twachtman a species of creative synthesis. His opalescent panels are veritable improvisations wherein the essentials of impressionism have been superseded by a subtle abstraction frankly suggestive of the Japanese. Both men died in the fullness of attainment, and you have merely to survey the walls of any current exhibition in order to realize how sadly we miss certain elements of taste, sensibility, and aesthetic integrity which were the touchstones of these two brief but significant careers.
There can be nothing invidious in the contention that the chief success among living American painters represented at San Francisco was achieved by Frank Duveneck. Though reminiscent of the Munich Academy manner and the murky tonality of Piloty and the Italo-Bavarians of some four decades ago, Mr. Duveneck's work is by no means devoid of personality. You will doubtless recall Leibl in confronting certain of his portraits. You may here and there encounter echoes of von Lenbach or the sumptuous Venetians, yet always you will meet the eye and hand, the mind and manipulative mastery of Duveneck himself. As far as the general public is concerned, and the public is, alas, seldom recognizant in such cases, Frank Duveneck has of late years been merely a respected and honoured memory. The San Francisco exhibition served to rehabilitate his name and ensure for him that position in the development of American painting which he so rightfully merits.
While adequately presented, less interest attached to the work of our periodic prize winners than to certain more progressive talents. In the company of such men as Tarbell, Hassam, Metcalf, and Redfield, one experiences a sense of quotidian familiarity. They are specialists, and may always be counted upon to maintain prescribed standards. Their production reveals few departures and no surprises. It is consequently to the younger element that we must turn in order to gather a less perfunctory impression of contemporary painting, and in this connexion may be cited the names of Frederic C. Frieseke, Hayley Lever, Jonas Lie, Walter Griffin, George W. Bellows, and Arthur B. Carles. Mr. Frieseke proved the official as well as popular success of the exhibition. By no means profound, or divulging any disquieting depth of feeling, his canvases are nevertheless captivating in their sheer, bright-toned beauty, their luminous iridescence, whether of boudoir or sun-flecked river bank. In Mr. Lever we discern a more substantial achievement, and note a special gift for colour draughtsmanship and a sense of rhythm as rare as it is welcome.
There can be no doubt but that the complexion of current art is fast changing. To these changes the public is rapidly becoming accustomed, more rapidly perhaps than exposition promoters and museum officials realize. We are casting off our congenital conservatism and dependence. The Fontainebleau-Barbizon tradition which so long darkened and sentimentalized native landscape, and the aesthetic anaemia that emanated from the delicate organism of Whistler, have been succeeded by fresher, more invigorating tendencies. While one cannot describe the paintings at the Panama-Pacific Exposition as being in any degree radical or modernistic, still they were sufficiently indicative of the fact that art in America is progressing along normal, wholesome lines. Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, and the like were exeluded from the native section. You did not encounter upon the walls of the Palace of Fine Arts any third, or fourth, dimensional experiments. There were it is true a few arsenical nudes in evidence, yet as a rule there was nothing that could perturb the cautious or timorous.
We appear, on the whole, to display less fervour and less creative fecundity than do our foreign colleagues. The sense of style is with us not so prominently developed, nor do we seem so individual in our general outlook. Such considerations are not superficial. They are fundamental. Our art begins at the top instead of surging irresistibly up from the wellsprings of nature and character. We betray the effects of an imperfectly established social equilibrium. We lack on one hand the sturdy substratum of peasant endeavour which the Europeans so abundantly possess, and, on the other, that central authority which must always constitute the final court of appeal. While, as was so eloquently demonstrated at San Francisco, we have accomplished memorable things in architecture, sculpture, and painting, we must not be misled by mere exposition enthusiasm into believing that the prize of beauty has been, or can ever be, definitively captured.
And as you lingered outside the galleries in the fading light, with the stars mirrored in the surface of the pool, and the swans gliding silently about, you doubtless thought less of Cythère than of Die Toteninsel. The dream of a splendid exhibition of contemporary painting, of something uniquely educational and uniquely inspirational, had meanwhile vanished. The architect, with the perspective of the ages behind him, succeeded, in his visible suggestion of human aspiration and human futility, in giving us something more subtle than that vouchsafed by the art director. The one was a prophecy, the other merely a promise.