Home -> John J. Newbegin -> The City of Domes -> Chapter 5

Previous Page Home Up One Level Next Page


The Court of the Universe

Through the arch we passed into the neck of the Court of the Universe, which charmed us by the warmth of its coloring, by McLaren's treatment of the sunken garden, by its shape, by the use of the dark pointed cypress trees against the walls, and by the sweep of view across the great court to the Marina, broken, however, by the picturesque and inharmonious Arabic bandstand. We glanced at the inscriptions at the base of the tower carrying on the history of the Canal to its completion. Then we stopped before those graceful little elephants bearing Guerin's tall poles with their streamers. "That little fellow is a gem in his way. He comes from Rome. But the heavy pole on his back is almost too much for him. He's used pretty often on the grounds, but not too often. After the Exposition is over we ought to keep these figures for the Civic Center. They would be very ornamental in the heart of the city."

As we walked toward the main court, the architect called my attention to the view between the columns on the other side of the Tower of Jewels, with the houses of the city running down the hills. "San Francisco architecture may not be beautiful when you study individual houses. But in mass it is fine. And, of a late afternoon, it is particularly good in coloring. It seems to be enveloped in a rich purple haze. That color might have given the mural decorators a hint. It would have been effective in the midst of all this high-keyed architecture. It's easy here to imagine that you're in one of those ancient Hindu towns where the gates are closed at night. You almost expect to see camels and elephants."

What was most striking in the Court was its immensity. "Though it comes from Bernini's entrance court to St. Peter's in Rome, it is much bigger. There are those who think it's too big. But it justifies itself by its splendor. The use of the double row of columns is particularly happy. The double columns were greatly favored by the Romans. In St. Peter's Bernini used four in a row. And what could be finer than those two triumphal arches on either side, the Arch of the Rising Sun and the Arch of the Setting Sun, with their double use of symbolism, in suggesting the close relation between California and the Orient, as well as their geographical meaning? They are, of course, importations from Rome, the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus all over again, with a rather daring use of windows with colored lattices to give them lightness and with colossal groups of almost startling proportions used in place of the Roman chariot or quadriga."

Originally, the intention had been to use here the name of the Court of Sun and Stars. Then it was changed to the Court of Honor, and finally to its present name, to suggest the international character of the Exposition.

Those two groups represented by far the most ambitious work done by the sculpture department. From designs by Calder, they were made by three sculptors, Calder, Roth and Lentelli. They presented problems that must have been both difficult and interesting to work out. First, they had to balance each other. What figure in the Pioneer group could balance the elephant that typified the Orient? Calder had the idea of using the prairie schooner, associated with the coming of the pioneers to California, drawn by great oxen.

The Oriental group doubtless shaped itself in picturesque outlines much more quickly than the sturdy, but more homely Americans of the earlier period. The Orientals displayed an Indian prince on the ornamented seat, and the Spirit of the East in the howdah, of his elephant, an Arab shiek on his Arabian horse, a negro slave bearing fruit on his head, an Egyptian on a camel carrying a Mohammedan standard, an Arab falconer with a bird, a Buddhist priest, or Lama, from Thibet, bearing his symbol of authority, a Mohammedan with his crescent, a second negro slave and a Mongolian on horseback.

The Nations of the West were grouped around that prairie wagon, drawn by two oxen. In the center stood the Mother of Tomorrow a typical American girl, roughly dressed, but with character as well as beauty in her face and figure. On top of the wagon knelt the symbolic figure of "Enterprise," with a white boy on one side and a colored boy on the other, "Heroes of Tomorrow." On the other side of the wagon stood typical figures, the French-Canadian trapper, the Alaska woman, bearing totem poles on her back, the American of Latin descent on his horse, bearing a standard, a German, an Italian, an American of English descent, a squaw with a papoose, and an Indian chief on his pony. The wagon was modelled on top of the arch. It was too large and bulky to be easily raised to that great height.

The architect was impressed by the boldness of the designs and to the spirit that had been put into them. "It's very seldom in the history of art that sculptors have had a chance to do decorative work on so big a scale. It must have been a hard job, getting the figures up there in pieces and putting them together. Some of the workers came near being blown off. Some of them lost their nerve and quit. I wonder, by the way, if that angel on top of the prairie wagon would be there if Saint Gaudens hadn't put an angel in his Sherman statue, and if he hadn't made an angel float over the negro soldiers in his Robert Gould Shaw monument in Boston. He liked that kind of symbolism. He must have got it from the mediaeval sculptors who worked under the inspiration of the Catholic Church."

Varying notes we found around the American group. Cleopatra's needle, used for ornamentation, suggested Egypt and the Nile. That crenellated parapet once belonged to military architecture: between those pieces that stood up, the merlons, in the embrasure, the Greek and Roman archers shot their arrows at the enemy and darted back behind the merlons for protection. In spite of its being purely ornamental it told its story just the same, and it expressed the spirit that still persisted in mankind. Nowadays it was even used on churches. But religion and war had always been associated. Besides, in an International Exposition it was to be expected that the art should be international. How many people, when they looked at Cleopatra's needle, knew how closely it was related to the newspapers and historical records of today? The Egyptians used to write on these monuments news and opinions of public affairs. The Romans had a similar custom in connection with their columns. On the column of Trajan they not only wrote of their victories, but they pictured victorious scenes in stone.

The little sprite that ran along the upper edge of the court in a row, the star-figure, impressed me as making an unfortunate contrast with the stern angel, repeated in front of each of the two arches. My criticism brought out the reply that it was beautiful in itself and had its place up there. "These accidental effects of association are sometimes good and sometimes they're not. Here I can't see that they make a jarring effect. In the first place, a Court of the Universe ought to express something of the incongruity in our life. Ideally, of course, it isn't good in art to represent a figure in a position that it's hard to maintain without discomfort. But here the outlines are purely decorative and don't suggest strain. In my judgment that figure is one of the greatest ornaments in the court. It gives just the right note."

The two fountains in the center of the sunken garden were gaily throwing their spray into the air. The boldness of the Tritons at the base represented a very different kind of handling from the delicacy of the figure at the top of each, the Evening Sun and the Rising Sun, both executed with poetic feeling. In the Rising Sun, Weinmann had succeeded in putting into the figure of the youth life, motion and joy. Looking at that figure, just ready to spread its wings, one felt as if it were really about to sweep into the air. Though the Evening Sun might be less dramatic, it was just as fine. "It isn't often that you see sculpture of such imaginative quality," said the architect.

Those great symbolic figures by Robert Aitken, at once giving a reminder of Michael Angelo, impressed me as being perfectly adapted to the Court, and to their subjects, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. But my companion thought they were too big. He agreed, however, that they were both original and strong. There was cleverness in making the salamander, with his fiery breath and his sting, ready to attack a Greek warrior, symbolize fire. Under the winged girl representing air there was a humorous reference to man's early efforts to fly in the use of the quaint little figure of Icarus. Water and earth were more conventional, but worked out with splendid vigor, the two figures under earth suggesting the competitive struggle of men. "I remember Aitken in his beginning here in San Francisco. Though he often did poor stuff, everything of his showed artistic courage and initiative. Even then anyone could see there was something in him. Now it's coming out in the work he has contributed to this Exposition. The qualities in these four statues we shall see again when we reach the fountain that Aitken made for the Court of Abundance. They are individual without being eccentric. Compare these four figures with the groups in front of the two arches, by Paul Manship, another American sculptor of ability, but different from Aitken in his devotion to the early Greek. When Manship began his work a few years ago he was influenced by Rodin. Then he went to Rome and became charmed with the antique. Now he follows the antique method altogether. He deliberately conventionalizes. And yet his work is not at all conventional. He manages to put distinct life into it. These two groups, the 'Dancing Girls' and 'Music,' would have delighted the sculptors of the classic period."

Under the Arch of the Rising Sun two delicate murals by Edward Simmons charmed us by their grace, their lovely coloring, by the richness of their fancy and by the extraordinary fineness of their workmanship. "There's a big difference of opinion about those canvases as murals. But there's no difference of opinion in regard to their artistic merit. They are unquestionably masterpieces. Kelham and Guerin, who had a good deal to do with putting them up there, believe they are in exactly the right place. But a good many others think they are almost lost in all this heavy architecture. You see, Simmons didn't take Guerin's advice as to a subject. Each of his two murals has a meaning, or rather a good many meanings, but no central theme, no story that binds the figures into a distinct unity. So, from the point of view of the public, they are somewhat puzzling. People look up there and wonder what those figures are doing. But to the artist they find their justification merely in being what they are, beautiful in outline and in posture and coloring. You don't often get such atmosphere in mural work, or such subtlety and richness of feeling."

Both murals unmistakably showed the same hand. "There's not another man in the country who could do work of just that kind. That group in the center of the mural to the north could be cut out and made into a picture just as it stands. It doesn't help much to know that the middle figure, with the upraised arm, is Inspiration with Commerce at her right and Truth at her left. They might express almost any symbols that were related to beauty. And the symbolism of the groups at either end seems rather gratuitous. They might be many other things besides true hope and false hope and abundance standing beside the family. But the girl chasing the bubble blown out by false hope makes a quaint conceit to express adventure, though perhaps only one out of a million would see the point if it weren't explained."

The opposite mural we found a little more definite in its symbolism, if not so pictorial or charming. The figures consisted of the imaginary type of the figure from the lost Atlantis; the Roman fighter; the Spanish adventurer, suggesting Columbus; the English type of sea-faring explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh; the priest who followed in the wake of the discoverer, the bearer of the cross to the new land; the artist, spreading civilization, and the laborer, modern in type, universal in significance, interesting here as standing for the industrial enterprise of today.

"Those murals suggest what a big chance our decorators have in the themes that come out of our industrial life. They've only made a start. As mural decoration advances in this country, we ought to produce men able to deal in a vigorous and imaginative way with the big spiritual and economic conceptions that are associated with our new ideals of industry."

One feature of this court made a special appeal to the architect, the use of the large green vases under the arches. "They're so good they're likely to be overlooked. They blend perfectly in the general scheme. Their coloring could not have been better chosen and their design is particularly happy."

Previous Page Home Up One Level Next Page