Home -> John J. Newbegin -> The City of Domes -> Chapter 9

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The Palace of Fine Arts From Across the Lagoon

In returning to the Court of the Four Seasons, we started along another of those inner courts, made charming by those Spanish doorways and by the twisted columns, a favorite of the Romans, evidently borrowed from the Orientals. "All through the Exposition," the architect remarked, "we are reminded of the Oriental fondness for the serpent. Some people like to say that it betrays the subtlety and slyness of the Oriental people. But they admired the serpent chiefly because, in their minds, it represented wisdom, the quiet and easy way of doing things, a little roundabout perhaps, but often better than the method of opposition and attack."

Before us, looking down as if from an eminence, stood, the Palace of Fine Arts. The architect reminded me of the clever planning that had placed this magnificent conception in so commanding a position, looking down into the courts, on what he called "the main axis."

"It's the vision of a painter who is also a poet, worked out in terms of architecture. Maybeck planned it all, even to the details. He wanted to suggest a splendid ruin, suddenly come upon by travelers, after a long journey in a desert. He has invested the whole place with an atmosphere of tragedy. It's Roman in feeling and Greek in the refinement of its ornamentation. That rotunda reminds one of the Pantheon in Rome. Those Corinthian columns, with the melancholy drooping of the acanthus and the fretwork and the frieze, by Zimm, are suggestive of Greece. Maybeck says that his mind was started on the conception, 'The Island of Death,' by Boecklin, the painting that the German people know so well as the 'Todteninsel,' and by 'The Chariot Race,' of Gerome."

The architect went on to say that the resemblance was remote and chiefly interesting as showing how a great artist could carry a suggestion into an entirely new realm. The Boecklin painting merely suggested the general scope of the work, and the chariot race gave the hint for that colonnade, which Maybeck had made so original and graceful by the use of the urns on top of groups of columns with the figure of a woman at each corner. He had used that somewhat eccentric scheme on account of its pictorial charm. All through the construction Maybeck had defied the architectural conventions; but he had been justified by his success.

My attention was directed to a group of columns at the end of the colonnade. "There's just a hint of the Roman Forum over there. Perhaps it's accidental. Perhaps it's developed from a picture way down in Maybeck's consciousness. However, the idea of putting two columns together in just that way comes from the French Renaissance. The great French architect, Perrault, used it in the Louvre. In the competition he won out over Bernini, who is living again in the Court of the Universe. It gives great architectural richness."

People had wondered what McLaren had meant to indicate by the high hedges he had made over there with his dew plant. He had merely carried out the designs put into his hands. Maybeck had intended the hedge to be used as a background for willow trees that were to run up as high as the frieze, in this way gaining depth. Through those trees the rotunda was to be glimpsed. Willow trees, with overhanging boughs, were also to be planted along the edge of the lagoon, the water running under the leaves and disappearing.

In the lagoon swans were swimming and arching their long necks. "The old Greeks and Romans would have loved this scene, though they would, of course, have found alien influences here," said the architect. "They would have enjoyed the sequestration of the Palace, its being set apart, giving the impression of loneliness. The architects were shrewd in making the approach long and circuitous."

"They might have done more with the water that was here before they filled in," I said. "It offered fine chances."

"Yes, and they thought of them and some ambitious plans were discussed. But the expense was found to be prohibitive."

At that moment a guard, in his yellow uniform with brass buttons, came forward with a questioning lady at his side. They stood so close to us that we could not help hearing their talk.

"What are those women doing up there?"

The guard looked at the urns, surmounting the columns. "They're supposed to be crying," he said.

"What are they crying about?"

The guard looked a little embarrassed. "They are crying over the sadness of art," he said. Then he added somewhat apologetically, "Anyway, that's what the lecturer told us to say."

The lady appealed to us for information. "What this gentleman says is true," remarked the authority at my side. "The architect intended that those figures should express something of the sadness of life as reflected in art."

"Oh," said the lady, as if she only half understood.

Then she and the guard drifted away.

"Those people have unconsciously given us a bit of art criticism, haven't they? One of the most pictorial notes in this composition of Maybeck's is the use of these figures. But it's also eccentric and it puzzles the average looker-on who is always searching after meanings, according to the literary habit of the day, the result of universal reading. Perhaps the effect would have been, less bewildering if those urns were filled with flowers as Maybeck intended they should be. Then the women would have seemed to be bending over the flowers. The little doors were put into the urns so that the man in charge of the flowers could reach up to them. But this item of expense was included among the sacrifices."

The coloring of the columns had been a subject of some criticism. The ochre columns were generally admired; but the green columns were considered too atmospheric to give the sense of support. And that imitation of green marble directly under the Pegasus frieze of Zimm's, near the top, had been found to bear a certain resemblance to linoleum. But in applying, the colors Guerin had worked with deliberate purpose. The green under the frieze was really a good imitation of marble, and the shade used on the column suggested the weather-beaten effect associated with age.

"There are columns that, in my opinion, have more beauty than those Maybeck used. But that's a matter of taste. In themselves those columns are fine and they blend into impressive masses. That altar under the dome, with the kneeling figure, only a great artist could have conceived in just that way. Ralph Stackpole, the sculptor of the figure, worked it out in perfect harmony with Maybeck's idea. To appreciate his skill one ought to get close and see how roughly it has been modeled in order that the lines should be clear and yet give an effect of delicacy across the lagoon. And those trees along the edge of the lagoon, how gracefully they are planted, in the true Greek spirit. The lines in front of the rotunda are all good, as they run down to the water's edge. And how richly McLaren has planted the lagoon. He has given just the luxuriance that Maybeck wanted."

The Western Wall

We turned to get the effect of the western wall looking out on this magnificence. "Faville has done some of his finest work there. All over the Exposition he has expressed himself; but as his name is not connected with one of the great courts we don't hear it very much. When he tackled the Western Wall he had one of the hardest of his problems. There was a big expanse to be made interesting and impressive, without the aid of towers or courts. It was a brilliant idea to break the monotony with those two splendid Roman half-domes."

The figure of "Thought" on the columns in front of the Dome of Plenty and repeated on the Dome of Philosophy started the architect talking on the subject of character and art. "Only a sculptor with a very fine nature could have done that fellow up there. In that design Stackpole shows the qualities that he shows in the kneeling girl at the altar in the rotunda across the lagoon and in his figure of the common laborer and the little group of artisans and artists that we shall see on the doorway of the Varied Industries. They include fineness and cleanness of feeling, reverence and tenderness. This particular figure is one of three figures on the grounds that stand for virtually the same subject, Rodin's "Thinker," in the courtyard of the French Building, and Chester Beach's "Thinker," in the niches to the west and east of the tower in the Court of the Ages. They are all different in character. Stackpole's gives the feeling of gentle contemplation. That man might be a poet or a philosopher or an inventor; but a man of the kind of thought that leads to action or great achievement in the world - never. You can't think of him as competing with his whole heart and soul in order to get ahead of other men. However, it would be an achievement just to be that type and it's a good type to be held up to us for our admiration, better than the conventional ideal of success embodied in the Adventurous Bowman, for example."

The proportions of the domes we could see at a glance had been well worked out. Earl Cummings' figure of the Youth had a really youthful quality; but there was some question in our minds as to the wisdom of repeating the figure in a semi-circle. "After all," the architect remarked, "in this country art owes some concession to habit of mind. We are not trained to frankness in regard to nudity. On the contrary, all our conventions are against it. But our artists, through their special professional training, learn to despise many of our conventions and they like to ignore them or frankly show their contempt for them."

That elaborate Sienna fountain was well adapted to the Dome of Plenty, though it was by no means a fine example of Italian work, with its design built up tier on tier. "It's the natural expression of a single idea that leads to beauty, isn't it? The instant there's a betrayal of effort, the charm begins to fade."

There was no criticism to be made, however, of the Italian fountain in the Dome of Philosophy, the simplest of all the fountains, and one of the most beautiful, the water flowing over the circular bowl from all sides. "It makes water the chief feature," said the architect approvingly, "which is the best any fountain can do. Is there anything in art that can compare for beauty with running water? This fountain comes from Italy and these female figures, above the doorway, with books in their arms, are by one of the most interesting of the sculptors represented here, Albert Weinert. We'll see more work of his when we get to the Court of Abundance."

At sight of the curious groups in the niches I expressed a certain disappointment. It seemed to me that, in the midst of so much real beauty, they were out of key. But the architect had another point of view. "They are worth while because they're different," he said. "They ought not to be considered merely as ornaments. They have an archaeological interest. They are related to those interesting studies that Albert Durer used to make, and they are full of symbolism. When Charles Harley made them he knew just what he was doing. The male figure in 'The Triumph of the Fields' takes us back to the time when harvesting was associated with pagan rites. The Celtic cross and the standard with the bull on top used to be carried through the field in harvest time. The bull celebrates the animal that has aided man in gathering the crops. The wain represents the old harvest wagon. That head down there typifies the seed of the earth, symbol of the life that comes up in the barley that is indicated there, bringing food to mankind. The woman's figure, unfortunately, is too small for the niche, 'Abundance.' The horn of plenty on either side indicates her character. She's reaching out her hands to suggest her prodigality. The head of the eagle on the prow of the ship where she is sitting, gives the idea an American application, suggesting our natural prosperity and our reason for keeping ahead in the march of progress. In one sense, those figures represent a reactionary kind of sculpture. Nowadays the sculptors, like the painters, are trying to get away from literal interpretations. They don't want to appeal to the mind so much as to the emotions."

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