|Home -> Other California History Books -> Impressions of the Art at the Panama-Pacific Exposition - Foreign Painting - Part Two|
If it was the Dutchmen of the seventeenth century who freed painting from influences that were monastic and monarchical, it was the Frenchmen of the nineteenth who initiated what may be described as the modern movement. For those who confess to a passion for precision, it is well to recall 1870 as the date which marks the starting point of the contemporary school. It was in the spring of this year, when visiting his friend de Nittis in the environs of Paris, that Manet painted the luminous, fresh-toned canvas entitled The Garden, disclosing a delightful family group seen in the open under the spreading trees. Following the war, French art evinced renewed vigour, the Impressionists, after an arduous struggle, finally succeeding in demonstrating to a recalcitrant public the fluid beauty of atmosphere and the charm of simple, everyday scene. On all sides there was a spontaneous return to life, nor was this tendency without perceptible influence upon the painting of the day. It is this re-affirmation of the fundamental race spirit which those who organized the French Section at San Francisco endeavoured to illustrate. The display showed on one hand what France, despite defeat, was able to accomplish, and on the other that which she is now, in the fullness of her power, currently achieving.
You could not stroll through the Retrospective Exhibition, which was housed in the imposing French Pavilion, without having acutely revived certain early, unforgettable memories. Here was Manet's Balcony, showing Mlle. Berthe Morisot, the painter Guillemet, and their companion grouped behind the familiar pale green grating. There was Besnard's Portrait of Alphonse Legros, while a few paces farther along Carrière's Christ peered out of a vague, poignant, spirit kingdom. Puvis was there, and so were Degas, Fantin-Latour, Renoir, Cazin, and the sumptuous and hieratic Gustave Moreau. Certain of the more radical figures, including Cézanne, Gauguin, and Toulouse Lautrec were also on view, though, alas, but meagrely presented. The atmosphere of the Luxembourg was in brief transported to San Francisco with the coming of these canvases which, in a sense, constitute the vanguard of modernism. It was a notable collection, and while as a rule the best examples by the various artists were not in evidence, yet enough remained to convey the essential message of the men selected.
If the galleries in the Pavilion constituted a species of miniature Luxembourg, those devoted to French painting in the Palace of Fine Arts offered a judicious résumé of recent Salon activity. Designed to include work done during the past five years, one noted with pleasure subjects by Besnard, Blanche, Cottet, Dauchez, Le Sidaner, Roll, and Simon as well as a few by such relatively advanced spirits as Maurice Denis, Signac, and Vallotton. A scrupulously sustained eclecticism distinguished the offering as a whole. It was patently, indeed almost painfully, apparent that an attempt had been made to reconcile all differences, to fuse all factions into approved official concord. The result, as may be anticipated, was unconvincing, for in like circumstances conventionality invariably triumphs. Those already familiar with contemporary French painting experienced scant difficulty in arriving at their respective conclusions. They knew what to accept and what to condone. With the general public, matters were more complicated. The art of France is nevertheless sufficiently diverse to satisfy all demands. It presents a mixture of academic routine and seemingly rampant radicalism. So great is the productivity of this marvellous people that every conceivable artistic manifestation finds place upon exhibition wall. The most antithetical tendencies flourish side by side and appear to attract an equally numerous and ardent following.
And still, despite its baffling complexity, French art remains inherently sane, balanced, and logical. Beneath each apparent eccentricity lurks an intellectual integrity that sooner or later discloses itself to view. And in every Frenchman may be found a substratum of classicism the function of which seems to be the constant simplification of form and clarification of feeling. It is some such impression that one could gather from a study of the French Section at San Francisco. While not particularly stimulating, the ensemble served its purpose sufficiently well. To have demanded more in these tumultuous times would indeed have been ungracious.
Though the Frenchmen have for close upon a century furnished the most potent impetus known to the artistic world it is only recently that the Italians may be said to have come into their own. The foremost figures in the development of latter-day Italian painting are Domenico Morelli and Giovanni Segantini, the one a fervid naturalist, the other the founder of the Divisionist School. It is unnecessary here to discuss the career of the ardent Neapolitan who passed from the pose of romanticism into the pure light of day, or to detail the heroic life struggle of the painter of Alpine scene who became one of the incontestable masters of the closing years of the last century. Though neither Morelli nor Segantini was represented in the Palace of Fine Arts, we had, in partial compensation, an interesting group of men mainly from Rome with a casual sprinkling of Venetians.
Conceived along the same conservative, not to say conventional, lines as the French Section, the Italians nevertheless appeared to better advantage, owing to the effectiveness of their installation. You here observed the influence of Vienna, which came to us via Venice, for in these spacious, bright-toned galleries one almost fancied oneself at one of those admirable expositions in the Giardini Pubblici which have done so much to stimulate Southern European taste. Prominent among the exhibitors at San Francisco was the amazing Mancini, who sent three pseudo portraits, surcharged with pigment and saturated with sheer Latin lusciousness of tone. The magician of the Via Margutta is indeed incomparable as ever, and quite obliterated his associates. The prismatic palette of Camillo Innocenti, which has acquired a certain Gallic grace, was seen to advantage in a quartette of canvases, the best of which was The Green Shawl which by the by was the earliest in date. If Innocenti has become a modified, mundane impressionist, Ettore Tito remains a fluent exponent of genre and figure painting who likewise appeared to more purpose with an older work, The Procession, which carried one's memories back a full score of years to the Venice Exposition of 1895.
A glance about the galleries was sufficient to disclose a number of excellent works, among which must be mentioned Giuseppe Mentessi's austere and imaginative fantasy entitled The Soul of the Stones, Emma Ciardi's The Avenue: Boboli Gardens, and two sensuous colour invocations by Enrico Lionne, designated respectively as Red Roses and The Return of Divine Love. The latter contributed the only modern note to a display the significance of which would have been considerably augmented by a reasonable concession to more progressive taste. One regretted in particular the entire absence of the Divisionist School, already referred to, which owes its inception to Segantini and Previati. This group, which includes such unquestioned talents as Carlo Fornara, Cinotti, Ramponi, Zanon, and others, appeared with signal success at the Latin-British Exhibition at Shepherd's Bush three years ago. Their work is luminous and anti-academic, and no survey of contemporary Italian painting which does not accord them adequate consideration can claim completeness.
Not the least disappointing feature of the Exposition was the lamentable absence of Spain, the one foreign country whose official participation would seem to have been essential to the undertaking. In default of any sort of regular representation, a few stray Spanish artists found their way to the Pacific Coast. Among these it may not be amiss to record the names of Eliseo Meifren, Gonzalo Bilbao, and the brothers Zubiaurre, all of whom contributed work of varying merit. As it happened, however, Peninsular art was not entirely overlooked, for revolution-ridden little Portugal came gallantly to the rescue. The three leading Portuguese painters of the day, Columbano, Malhôa, and Selgado revealed themselves as able personalities. Columbano is a portraitist of the older persuasion, possessing a discerning grasp of character and a subdued, dignified sense of colour. One recalls Watts in confronting the serious, earnest physiognomies of his poets, players, and men of affairs, saving for the fact that the Englishman never drew or modelled with such suave surety. In Malhôa was disclosed the leading Portuguese painter of genre subject. Somewhat suggestive of the Valencian Sorolla, though without the latter's superlative dexterity, Malhôa achieves his best effects in such episodes as The Nightingale's Veranda, where his sympathy with native type and mastery of diffused light find congenial scope. With Selgado may be coupled his most successful pupil, Senhor Adriano de Sousa-Lopes, the Portuguese Commissioner of Fine Arts, whose facile brush and spontaneous love of colour have, despite his lack of years, won for him a distinguished position among the men of the younger generation.
The manifest traditionalism that, at San Francisco at least, characterized the art of the foregoing nations, could scarcely have failed to repeat itself in the production of those countries which are in a measure directly dependent upon European inspiration. If it is difficult to discover much that is vigorous or individual in the work of North Americans, still more so is it hard to perceive originality and independence of temper among our neighbours farther south. As the most prosperous and progressive of the South American republics, the Argentine not unnaturally evinces keen interest in matters artistic. Princely private collectors such as the late Señor José Prudencio de Guerrico, Señor Santamarina, and Señor Pellerano have done much toward familiarizing the public of Buenos Aires with the best contemporary European work. Regular and special exhibitions also contribute their share, yet the vital impulse must always come from the individual himself. The final result rests with the artist, and it is a pleasure to record that creative as well as cultural conditions in the Argentine show unmistakable promise.
Just as France is the foster-mother and chief instructress of the painters and sculptors of North America, so Italy, and to a certain extent France also, act in similar capacity toward South American aspirants. The students from Argentina desirous of completing their training go by preference to Turin, Florence, Rome, or Paris. Whether in Italy or France they come under influences more official than fecund, and this may be described as the cardinal defect of their production. They give us types from Tuscany or Brittany rather than racy and indigenous Argentinos. Thanks however to the recent revival of interest in what is currently known as "el arte nacional," such cosmopolitan pretensions are being corrected, and interest is being concentrated upon themes which are native and local. In the work of Jorge Bermúdez, Pompeo Boggio, and the sculptor, Alberto Lagos, are welcome evidences that European predominance is on the wane. The landscape painters, too, notably Américo Panozzi and his colleagues, are disclosing undoubted personal charm and freshness of vision.
And thus, while your initial impressions of the Argentine Section at San Francisco may have seemed disappointing, you would, upon closer inspection, have found not a little to interest and admire. Artistically speaking, the Argentinos are awakening to their inherent possibilities. From the dean of the native school, Eduardo Sívori, to Antonio Alice, one of the youngest members of the group, the spirit seems encouraging and the desire to accomplish something is increasingly manifest. A word of praise should in conclusion be accorded the installation of the exhibit in the Palace of Fine Arts, Señor Oliva Navarro having achieved a most satisfactory result with the single room at his disposal.
We shall not, in the present circumstances, consider the showing made by other Latin-American countries such as Uruguay, Cuba, and the Philippines. Isolated individuals, including the Uruguayan, Manuel Rosé, and the Cuban, Leopoldo Romanach, may have risen above the level, yet the general average was wanting in both decision and distinction. It is furthermore not our intention to discuss the comprehensively organized exhibits of China and Japan, or the modernistic contents of the Annex. These informal impressions do not claim to be exhaustive, but merely to bring under closer scrutiny certain salient features of development. Surveying in kindly, equable perspective the undertaking as a whole, one can scarcely escape the conviction that its chief shortcoming proved a lack of coherence. This pageant of art, as it was christened by coastal panegyrists, while imposing, was lacking in simplicity. A less pretentious, and at the same time more concisely formulated programme, must assuredly have produced different results. Judged for example by the standard set biennially at Venice, we have not thus far solved the problem of assembling a satisfactory exhibition of international painting and sculpture. Choice should be more discriminating, and there must above all loom behind such a task some concrete, unifying idea. We do not desire to see, nor should we be subjected to, all art, but rather those manifestations of artistic activity which alone illustrate certain specific principles. It is not the spectacular, nor is it mere numerical strength, that we are seeking. It is that which is vital, formative, and significant.
While maintaining the approved critical balance, one must not however lose sight of the positive good accomplished by the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Generally speaking the reaction has been satisfactory, and the response to the various aesthetic stimuli has proved frank, spontaneous, and unprejudiced. The three successive cultural waves which swept across the country following the expositions at Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis have finally overlapped the Rockies. Upon the Pacific slope the combined achievements of Europe and America have met and mingled with the mellow legacy of Indian and Spaniard and the subtle magic of the Orient. Geographically speaking, the circle is complete. It merely remains to be seen how far this flood from the perennial fountain of beauty can permanently enrich a parched and aspiring community.