Home -> John J. Newbegin -> The Jewel City -> Chapter VII. The Court of the Ages

Previous Page Home
Up One Level
Next Page


The Court of the Ages
(Officially called "The Court of Abundance.")

An artist's dream in romantic Orientalism - Mullgardt's own title for it - His great "Tower of the Ages" - Mullgardt interprets his architectural masterpiece - Brangwyn's splendid murals, "Earth," "Air," "Fire" and "Water" - The "Fountain of Earth," by Robert Aitken, realism set amidst the romantic.

The Court of the Universe is not Oriental, the Court of the Ages is. Not in architecture, but in feeling, in the atmosphere with which the architect has invested it, this court brings to mind those brilliant lands of the Mediterranean touched by the East through the Moors. You pass under its arcades and walk out into a region of the Sun, warm, bright, dazzling. The architect, Louis Christian Mullgardt, has caught the feeling of the South, - not the rank, jungle South of the tropics; nor the mild, rich South of our own Gulf states; but the hard, brilliant, arid South of the desert. This court expresses Arizona, New Mexico, Spain, Algiers, - lands of the Sun. The very flowers of its first gardens were desert blooms, brilliant in hue, on leafless stalks. There are orange trees, but they, also, are trees of the Sun, smooth of leaf, to retain moisture.

It is a court, too, of romance. It might be a garden of Allah, with a plaintive Arab flute singing, among the orange trees, of the wars and the hot passions of the desert. It might be a court in Seville or Granada, with guitars tinkling and lace gleaming among the cool arcades. It is a place for dreams.

The architecture has been called Spanish Gothic, but, according to the architect, it "has not been accredited to any established style." We may well be content to call it simply Mullgardt. The court is an artist's dream, rather than a formal study in historic architecture; and it is the more interesting, as it is the more original, for that. Except for the central fountain, which, fine though it is as a sculptured story, is out of harmony with the filigreed arcades around it, all the sculpture in the court is, in feeling, an intimate part of the romantic architecture. This portion of the art of the court is best considered as decoration, finding its justification in the beauty it imparts to the whole. It has genuine meaning, but what that is remains inscrutable so long as the court is called that of Abundance.

Mullgardt called his creation the "Court of the Ages." He was overruled because the officials deemed the name not in accord with the contemporaneous spirit of the Exposition. They called it the "Court of Abundance." In spite of the name, however, it is not the Court of Abundance. Mullgardt's title gives a key to the cipher of the statues. Read by it, the groups on the altar of the Tower become three successive Ages of Civilization. (See p. 70.)

Tower of the Ages. - This is the most admired of all the Exposition towers, and with reason. The originality, strength and beauty of its design set it above anything else of the sort yet seen in America; and the symbolism of its sculptures, which are the work of Chester Beach, is of almost equal interest with the tower itself. At the base, on the gable above the arch, rude of face and form, with beasts low in the scale, are the people of the Stone Age. Above them is a mediaeval group, the Crusader, the Priest, the Peasant Soldier armed with a cross-bow, with similar figures on the side altars. Enthroned over all, with a crown on her brow, is Modern Civilization, expressed as Intelligence. At her feet are two children, one with an open book, symbolizing Learning; the other, a boy with a part of a machine, representing Industry. The supporting figures on the sides are the Man and Woman of the Present, sprung from the earlier types. The delicate finials rising from the summit of the tower express Aspiration.

The two shafts at the head of the court, each surmounted by a huntress with bended bow, symbolize Earth and Air. Originally they were intended as finials to the double cascade which was to have swept down to the court from the Altar of the Ages on the tower. The cascade was not built, much to the benefit of the beauty of the court, but the ornaments were suffered to remain. The giddy females who support each shaft are sufficiently romantic to be in keeping with the decoration of the court.

The three figures repeated around the top of the arcade are of a hunter dragging a deer, a woman with her offspring on her shoulder, and a primitive man feeding a pelican, all so happily expressed that they are an intimate part of the arcade on which they stand. They seem almost to have grown from their supports. These figures alone, unless we add the florid ladies of the ornamental shafts, with the rich filigree of the arcades and the tower, are all that express in any way the idea of Abundance carried in the present name of the court.

Mullgardt conceived this court as a sermon in stone. Its significance as a whole is best explained by the architect himself. He interprets the court as rising in four horizontal strata:

"The court is an historical expression of the successive Ages of the world's growth. The central fountain symbolizes the nebulous world, with its innate human passions. Out of a chaotic condition came Water (the basin), and Land (the fountain), and Light (the Sun, supported by Helios, and the electroliers). The braziers and cauldrons symbolize Fire. The two sentinel columns to the right and left of the tower symbolize Earth and Air. The eight paintings of the four corners of the ambulatory symbolize the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The central figure in the North Avenue symbolizes 'Modern Time Listening to the Story of the Ages.'

"The decorative motifs employed on the surrounding arcade are sea-plant life and its animal evolution. The piers, arches, reeds and columns bear legendary decorative motifs of the transition of plant to animal life in the forms of tortoise and other shell motifs; - kelp and its analogy to the prehistoric lobster, skate, crab and sea urchin. The water-bubble motif is carried through all vertical members which symbolize the Crustacean Period, which is the second stratum of the court.

"The third stratum, the prehistoric figures, surmounting the piers of the arcade, also the first group over the tower entrance, show earliest forms of human, animal, reptile and bird life, symbolizing the Stone Age Period.

"The fourth stratum, the second group in the altar tower, symbolizes human struggle for emancipation from ignorance and superstition, in which Religion and War are dominating factors. The kneeling figures on the side altar are similarly expressive. The torches above these mediaeval groups symbolize the Dawn of Understanding. The chanticleers on the finials surrounding the court symbolize the Christian Era. The topmost figure of the altar symbolizes Intelligence, 'Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards All,' the symbols of Learning and Industry at her feet. The topmost figure surmounting the side altar symbolizes Thought. The arched opening forming the enclosure of the altar contains alternating masks expressing Intelligence and Ignorance in equal measure, symbolizing the Peoples of the World. A gradual development to the higher forms of plant life is expressed upward in the altar tower, the conventionalized lily petal being the highest form."

This, then, is the lesson, the deepest and most spiritual attempted in any of the Exposition structures, and surely entitling the court to be called, as its creator wished, the Court of the Ages.

Brangwyn's Murals. - The mural paintings by Frank Brangwyn in the four corners of the arcades are rich, glorious in color, freighted with the opulence of the harvest, but they symbolize the four primeval elements - Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Their themes have nothing to do with Abundance. It is unfortunate that these pictures, far and away the best in the decoration of the Exposition, have been hidden in the corners of a court. The canvases are bold, free, vast as the elements they picture. They need space. When they were unpacked and hung on the walls of Machinery Hall, they were far more effective. Here they are cramped by their close quarters, and easily overlooked. People are not going in to see them as they should, and so are missing one of the chief joys of the Exposition, - the masterpieces of one of the world's greatest living painters.

These representations of the four elements glow and burn with the vivid hues of nature. All of the pictures have a setting of autumn,, that season of the year when nature puts on her dying hues, and floods the earth with color. Their rich reds, purples, yellows, browns, greens and indigoes are the hues of autumn skies, the falling leaves of hardwoods, the dense foliage of pines, colors of the harvest, of fruit and grapes, of flowers, and of deep waters. The men and women in them are primeval, too, of Mediterranean type, and garbed in the barbaric colors in which Southern folk express the warmth of their natures.

Free and vivid as is their color, the breadth of primeval liberty is not less seen in the splendid spaces of Brangwyn's pictures. The forest vistas are illimitable; the air has the freedom of the Golden Age; the skies stretch out and up to heaven.

Each set of two pictures represents one of the elements. The first of the Earth pictures in the northwest corner of the corridor is a harvest of orchard fruits, products of earth. Tall cypresses on the right enhance the vast space of sky over the orchard, the best sky in all the eight paintings. The colors are those of the rich fruits, the autumn flowers, and the garish costumes of Brangwyn's peasantry. The companion picture represents a vintage, with great purple grapes hanging among the bronzing leaves on a trellis, and yellow pumpkins and flowers underfoot. The color is in these, and in the same Southern costumes seen in the first picture.

The first of the Air pictures is as easy to read as the second is difficult. (p. 74.) In it a huge windmill stands on a height against rain-laden clouds and a glowing rainbow. The slope is covered with heavy-headed grain, and stained with vivid flowers, all bending before the swift currents of air. Laborers, men and women, hurry homeward before the wind, from their task of winnowing grain. Boys flying their kites complete the symbolism.

In the companion picture a group of archers are loosing their arrows between the boles of tall, straight hardwoods on the brink of a deep valley. Great white birds are winging outward through the tops of the trees. The distance in the sky beyond is wonderful. The color is of the gorgeous autumn leaves of hardwoods and of rich flowers.

In one of the Water pictures fishermen are drawing a net from a lake suggested by a fringe of purple, white and yellow iris. The men seem to stand on an island or a peninsula, for behind them, beyond tall trees, is a deep indigo lake. Great pregnant clouds float in the sky, and the picture glows with autumn colors.

In the other, men and women come forward with water jars to a source suggested by tall white water birds and flowers growing thick among the sedges. There are the same clouds, big with the promise of rain, and the same profusion of vivid hues.

Primitive Fire is suggested in the next pair by a thick-clustered group of peasants with hands outstretched where a thin column of smoke rises straight. Autumn skies and foliage tell of chill in the air. The colors burn in dying leaves, in the sky, in fruit and grapes. A man is bringing a burden of fagots. Men of bovine anatomy crouch before the fire, their backs arched, their cheeks bulging, as they blow it into flame. These folk are all primitive, candid in their animalism, Samsons in limb and muscle. Brangwyn's mastery of anatomy is notable, and he builds his men with every flexor showing, like a machine.

Pottery burners working around a furnace dimly suggested convey the idea of Industrial Fire in the last of the pictures. There is the same motif of cold in the sky and the fruits, intensified by the somber leafage of fir and pine.

In striking contrast with the light and ethereal quality of the allegorical murals in the arches of the Court of the Universe, these paintings are rich to the point of opulence. There is an enormous depth in them. The figures are full-rounded. The fruits, flowers and grain hang heavily on their steams. The trees bear themselves solidly. The colors, laid on with strong and heavy strokes, fairly flame in the picture.

Public auction is the fate said to be destined by the Exposition company for these wonderful pictures. It is not to be blamed for this. It is a business corporation, and these paintings are assets on which it may be necessary to realize. But if the company finds itself financially able, it should see to it that the paintings remain in San Francisco as the property of the city. Like the great organ in Festival Hall, which the Exposition has promised to install in the Civic Auditorium when the fair ends, these splendid pictures should be hung in the Auditorium as a gift to the city.

If the Exposition is not able to give them, an opportunity is presented for men of wealth to do art a great service in San Francisco. Our cities, unlike those of Europe and of South America, are not accustomed to buy works of art. Private generosity, then, must supply the deficiency.

In the northern extension of the court, beyond the tower, where the Spanish decoration is carried almost to the bayward facade of the palace group stands a massive female figure, Modern Time Listening to the Story of the Ages. Beyond it are four standards of the Sun, like two at the southern end of the pool in the main court, brilliant at night.

There remains but the central fountain, in the main court, symbolizing the Earth, done by Robert Aitken. (p. 73.) Taken by itself, this is a notable work, but it is not in keeping with the romantic spirit of the Court of Ages. Its figures are magnificently virile, but wholly realistic. Only at night, when, through clouds of rising steam, the globe of the Earth glows red like a world in the making, and from the forked tongues of the climbing serpents flames pour out on the altars set around the pool, - only then does the fountain become mystic. Even then it suggests cosmogony, mechanics, physics, which are not romantic, except in so far as there may be romance of the intellect. However, this is Aitken, not Mullgardt. The allegories of the group are detailed in the chapter on Fountains.

Previous Page
Up One Level
Next Page