The Northern Scene

by Raymond L. Wilson

 



 

The following essay was written by Raymond L. Wilson. It is an essay written for, and included in, the 1991 book titled American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, edited by Ruth Westphal and Janet Blake Dominik, and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-3-1. Essay reprinted with permission of Westphal Publishing.

 

At a meeting full of significance for the future of the arts held in Washington, D.C. on Friday 8 December 1933 the general outlines of the first federally-sponsored art program in the history of the republic were roughed out. In attendance at this auspicious session were Edward Bruce, a Californian who had just been appointed director of the newly created Public Works of Art Project (PWAP); Forbes Watson, a former art critic and technical director of the PWAP; several museum directors, and Eleanor Roosevelt. In a press release made available on the following Monday, Watson, in a famous quote, announced that:

More than at any time during the past fifteen years the American artist is contemplating the American scene. More than ever he is looking at and into the life of his own land. So that at this time particularly the government's project should result in a valuable native record.[1]

In spite of its federal parentage, Watson's "American Scene" took on strong regional colorations, finding some of its most powerful expressions in oil, mural, and watercolor painting in a homegrown generation of Northern Californian artists who came of age during the Depression of the 1930s and who developed through the war years of the 1940s and after. In fact, it was Northern California that gave to the "American Scene" the most controversial of all of the PWAP-sponsored projects, a project that, aside from its controversial character, helped set the stage for a "Northern California scene" and one therefore worth recounting in some detail.

On Sunday 10 December 1933, the same weekend as the PWAP draft meeting, Edward Bruce sent a telegram to Dr. Walter Heil, the newly-appointed director of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco asking if Heil would accept chairmanship of District 15 for Northern California. Heil wired his agreement at once and shortly set in motion preparations for murals to be painted on the walls of the two-month old Coit Memorial Tower built on the crest of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill.

Heil began his assignment by forming an executive committee with himself as chairman. Anxious to get started as PWAP funds were due to expire on 15 February 1934, the members of the executive committee and a local advisory group gathered for a hastily called meeting to decide on a major theme for the Coit Tower murals, a consistent scale of proportions, and a unified palette of colors. Encouraged by Ralph Stackpole, the sculptor, and others instrumental in bringing Diego Rivera to San Francisco three years before to paint murals for the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) and for the then-new Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, Heil finally decided on the technique of fresco as the medium.

By January, Heil had selected sketches submitted by twenty-six artists from a field of fifty. In addition to the fresco work, Heil persuaded Otis Oldfield, a faculty member at the nearby CSFA, to prepare a group of oil-on-canvas scenes to be installed in the elevator lobby which led to the top of the tower. For this work Oldfield enlisted the help of fellow CSFA faculty members Rinaldo Cuneo, a landscapist and native San Franciscan, and José Moya del Pino, a Spanish-born painter and portraitist.

As for themes, Heil, faithfully following Edward Bruce's directive, ordered that the subject matter be the "American scene in all its aspects."[2] Arthur Brown, Jr., a member of the local advisory group, and whose architectural firm had designed Colt Tower,[3] suggested San Francisco scenes and, in a compromise worked out among the members of the executive committee, depiction of food production and agriculture was to take place in one wing, industrial production in another, and "city life resulting from both in the third."[4] The panels were unified by mineral-colored earth tones and stylistically derived largely from the work of the charismatic Diego Rivera and his ripely modeled forms and brawny, round-shouldered figures. The compression of space and the awkward perspectives, which tended to emphasize the essential flatness of the wall, arose from a rebirth of interest among many local painters in early-fifteenth century Florentine fresco painters such as Giotto and Masaccio. Thanks in part to a continuation of PWAP funds, the panels were mostly completed by early April.

The artists employed on the project were primarily from a younger generation, and several had actually worked with Rivera, including the Ukranian-born Victor Arnautoff, the superintendent of the works; Bernard Zakheim, a native of Poland and a former furniture maker; Clifford Wight; and Maxine Albro, a former student at the CSFA and a specialist in outdoor murals. Others working on the Coit Tower murals were Rivera's friend and mentor of many of San Francisco's younger artists, Ralph Stackpole, and Lucien Labaudt, Otis Oldfield, and John Langley Howard. Howard's mural montage, California Industrial Scenes, for example, is near the entrance to the tower. In the elevator lobby are Oldfield's San Francisco Bay (viewed from his Telegraph Hill studio) and Cuneo's Bay Area Hills (from the bordering East Bay and Santa Clara Valley).

On every artist's mind during the course of work in the winter of 1934 was the controversy over, and ultimate demolition on the weekend of 10 to 11 February, of Rivera's fresco at the newly constructed Rockefeller Center in New York City. In that mural he had painted, without advance warning, a portrait of Lenin. No less disturbing for the artists working on the tower was the growing tension between San Francisco shippers and waterfront unions. The PWAP had been extended to 28 April, and with work nearing completion, the opening of the tower by Mayor Angelo Rossi to the public was scheduled for 7 July 1934. The timing proved to be unfortunate. Events overtook the scheduled opening when two longshoremen were shot and killed by San Francisco police during strike violence forty-eight hours before. On 9 July over ten thousand strikers and sympathizers marched up Market Street in a funeral demonstration for the fallen longshoremen.

Parallel tension had begun early in June when San Francisco newspaper reporters and members of the San Francisco Art Commission were taken on a preview tour of the Coit Tower murals. Immediately Heil and others noticed that some artists had made "unauthorized" additions to the material represented in their original sketches. Zakheim had, for instance, in his Library, added figures reading newspapers with bold headlines announcing the recent destruction of Rivera's frescoes at Rockefeller Center as well as a figure pulling down a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital from the library shelves. Arnautoff, in his scene City Life, added a newsstand rack holding copies of the New Masses and the Daily Worker, publications of the Communist Party. Besides Zakheim and Arnautoff, another former student of Rivera, Clifford Wight, had added the hammer and sickle to one of his frescoes, and John Langley Howard's fresco showed a worker reading a Marxist newspaper.

On 2 June Heil sent an urgent telegram to Forbes Watson in Washington asking for directions as to what should be done about the potentially explosive additions. Watson replied that the murals had to be completed "according to the approved design" without additions. To the same reply Edward Bruce added that "the objectionable features must be removed" and that if the offending artists refused to do so, then "get others of the group to do it."[5]

Not long after the preview tours of the murals, the San Francisco Parks Commission, as custodian of Pioneer Park on which Coit Tower stood, ordered the tower closed. The newly organized Artists and Writers Union (numbering among their members the poet Kenneth Rexroth and a young playwright and essayist named William Saroyan), formed during the winter, in part to protest the obliteration of Diego Rivera's Rockefeller Center murals, began to picket Coit Tower to forestall any similar effort at censorship on the part of the Art Commission or the Parks Commission. The police, busy with the turmoil on the waterfront below, threw a ring of bluecoats around the hill about halfway down, justifying their action with the claim that someone might throw rocks or give signals from the hilltop.

The crisis on Telegraph Hill was not yet at an end, however. On 5 July, the same day that the two strikers were killed by police bullets, the San Francisco Examiner, an evening paper, published a photograph superimposing Wight's hammer and sickle logo over a portion of Zakheim's library scene as if it were part of the same painting. The doctored photo was picked up by the wire services and appeared subsequently in dozens of newspapers across the United States. What to do about the unauthorized additions remained a question. Clifford Wight, the painter of the hammer and sickle, wrote to Heil and insisted that he had intended to paint "social change -- not industrial or agricultural or scientific development -- and for this reason I made a representation of this historical fact by means of three symbols [capitalism, the New Deal and communism]." The symbol of communism, he explained, "is in no way an exhortation or propaganda, but a simple statement of an existing condition." Wight claimed, moreover, that he had cleared his ideas with the "Art Chief" Arnautoff. In a final note, Wight argued that "the press does not attempt to conceal the facts of social change and the existence of Communism. Why should the artist be denied the freedom allowed the journalist?"[6]

The issue was eventually quietly resolved at the 7 August meeting of the San Francisco Art Commission. Somewhat laconically, the minutes record that "Three panels over west, south and east windows on the main floor be removed, and the same background as contained in the adjacent frescoes be continued and substituted therefore."[7] Zakheim's books and Arnautoff's newspapers survived, but Wight's symbols of capitalism, communism and the New Deal were erased. In October, Colt Tower was finally opened to the public peacefully and without the violence or controversy that had marked the days before the originally scheduled July opening.

The federal art programs were the most visible and influential development in art in Northern California during the 1930s and early 1940s. Many San Francisco painters in oils, such as Cuneo, Oldfield, Labaudt, Arnautoff, and Howard, for example, adopted a Diego Rivera "look," painting brawny, short-torsoed figures, and rounded forms in mineral-colored tones. Less monumental in their scale, but covering a broader aspect of the "Northern California scene" were the watercolor paintings of a younger generation of artists that was coming of age in the midst of the Depression. The watercolorists were responding not only to Forbes Watson's call for an art of the "American Scene," but to a growing chorus of examples from painters like the Midwesterner Charles Burchfield whose watercolors of weathered houses, small southeastern Ohio coal towns, and wintry street scenes were attracting attention. Others of similar outlook and renown as Burchfield, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, and John Steuart Curry, were painting along related lines, documenting America's political, social, and industrial life of the moment.

American painters (and writers such as William Saroyan and Erskine Caldwell and photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange) were exhorted in this direction by such prominent critics of the American cultural scene as the New Republic's Edmund Wilson and Benton's old friend, the brashly confident Thomas Craven. And they were abetted by American historians like Charles Beard and James Truslow Adams. In his essays in the months before the October stock market crash of 1929, Wilson began to call for a return to studies and analyses of American life, to the "American scene." For example, in a review of Thornton Wilder's work appearing on 8 August 1928 Wilson politely requested that "I wish that he would study the diverse elements that go to make the United States, and give us their national portraits."[8] In a 30 January 1929 review of Dostoevsky's literary philosophy, Wilson, in a more earnest voice, built his case before the jury: "We must, of course, take European ways of thinking along with our language, our alphabet; but we must try to stick close to the realities of our contemporary American life. . . ."[9] And in a review of the expatriate T.S. Eliot, dated 24 April 1929, he tried to rally his readers: "It is up to American writers to try to make some sense of their American world. . . . "[10]

Making the same appeal, though less elegant in tone, was Thomas Craven. In a famous essay called "The Curse of French Culture" appearing in July 1929, Craven, putting words in the mouth of Honoré Daumier, wrote bitingly,

Go back, my friends, to our own people, and develop the rich materials of your own land. Art is not produced by culture. Art is the child of new understandings and fresh appreciations of common things, and it is beyond the reach of those who are slaves to the impulses of others.[11]

Making no fine drawing-room debating points, Craven, in a 1932 essay called "American Men of Art," declared:

We have in America a number of painters who are not fooled by European conventions, who understand that a painting-habit, even though it has been acquired abroad, is none the less a habit, and that its apparent originality is simply the effect of a new setting. To this group life and experience are more important than art, which is as it should be, for any man who is absorbed in art, to the exclusion of living experiences, is on the road to the madhouse or the academy.[12]

In referring "to this group," Craven was talking about the recent painting of Benton, Wood, Curry, Marsh, and the relatively few paintings from the short-lived career of Glenn O. Coleman.

Eventually California critics began to sense the shift in climate. In an essay for the American Magazine of Art in 1934, Arthur Millier, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, rather archly remarked:

With the shrinking of the market for painted tourist souvenirs, a generation of native artists is nearing maturity. Where the earlier landscape painters contented themselves with an approximation of light and air according to the gospel of impressionism, these younger artists are discovering the characteristic forms, rhythms and life of their country [italics added].[13]

With a nod in the direction of the watercolorists, Millier continued, "From Millard Sheets has sprung a large group of young water-color painters who need bow to no group in the country for freshness of view -- point, vigor of attack and faithfulness to the truths of their environment."[14]

Heretofore, watercolor painting in Northern California had a sporadic and infrequent history. Owing to the portable nature of watercolor materials and the quickness with which they could be mixed and applied, the medium was popular with many of the early voyager-artists sailing into the Pacific. These men, made responsible for documenting the natural history of the regions into which they sailed, depended on watercolor paints for their easy application. For instance, the first view of Yerba Buena (as San Francisco was then called) was a watercolor painted by a French topographic engineer in 1837.[15]

The first attempt at giving watercolorists an organizational identity, the California Water Color Society (CWCS), did not come until 1921 and then only in Los Angeles, which was just beginning to develop as an art center with museums, art schools, and galleries. The CWCS, like New York's American Watercolor Society (AWS) and the Pasadena-based California Art Club after which it was modeled, provided for an annual exhibition, the first of which was held at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art in the same year.

There were only fourteen exhibitors, and, among the artists represented, most were members of the slightly older California Art Club and better known for their work in oil paints: William Ritschel, Hanson Puthuff, Marion Wachtel, Donna Schuster, and Carl Oscar Borg. Most, too, were better known as painters of the late Barbizon, impressionist-inspired style of landscape painting popular in Southern California for most of the twenties. These were mainly smoothly-harmonized-color scenes of the seashore, the desert, the nearby hillsides, and the Sierra slopes.[16]

Responding in part to the appeals for American subjects and adding their own ideas about color, watercolor technique, and a bold, broad-brushed attack, a younger generation of mainly Southern California watercolorists, led by Millard Sheets, Hardie Gramatky, Barse Miller, Phil Dike, and others, were making news by the early thirties. Responding to an increase in interest, a growing California Water Color Society opened branches in San Diego and San Francisco.

Up North, traditional watercolor techniques had been taken close to perfection by specialists like Percy Gray and Francis McComas during the 1920s. Gray and McComas followed the Barbizon school, painting oak and eucalyptus trees as well as the undulant, mostly brown landscape around the Bay Area and the Monterey Peninsula. A typical example of Gray's work is the opulently foliaged and serenely colored Peninsula Oak. But by the fall of 1933 a general interest in watercolors had risen sufficiently that the Oakland Art Gallery, a Bay Area leader in innovative and occasionally controversial exhibitions, hung its First Annual Exhibition of Water Colors, Pastels, Prints and Drawings. It was, as William Clapp, the curator of the show, believed, perhaps the first of its kind by a public institution in the Bay Area.

There were 262 exhibits, and the watercolorists held pretty much to traditional topics. There were plenty of flowers, for instance, as well as landscapes. However, there was an Auto Wrecking Yard and a Gas Works.[17] In a letter dated 19 October to the Board of Directors of the Oakland Free Library, the administrative agency overseeing the Oakland Art Gallery, William Clapp, reported that "Our First Annual Exhibition of Water Colors, Pastels, Prints and Drawings is proving to be a great success."[18] Further on in his letter Clapp explained that the watercolor show had been planned to relieve the pressure on the gallery's spring annuals which had grown so large as to be nearly unmanageable and which would in the future be limited to oil painting.[19]

Meanwhile, what was to become the iconography of a new American watercolor style had been growing in evidence for some time. By the early 1930s most American city streets and neighborhoods were festooned with telephone and power lines. The automobile and its auxiliary cast of blacktopped streets, repair garages, and gas stations had become fixtures as had the automobile's ultimate destination, the wrecking yard. The big black, cylindrical gas storage tank, made of steel for water tightness and painted to resist corrosion, had become a landmark of American industry in an era before the laying of a cross-country pipeline system. Railroads had been a part of the American scene since Thoreau's time, their tracks having made a latticework of the American landscape. In the Bay Area, as elsewhere, railroad tracks, freight, and passenger cars of various designs, passenger stations, switching towers, and signaling apparatus were everywhere one looked. Men at work, a poignant scene in an age of unprecedented unemployment, became frequent subjects for watercolorists. Ships, bridges, and piers were added to the list as were older, weathered city streets, and neighborhoods.

Debuting at the 1934 watercolor annual at the Oakland Art Gallery, after a summer that saw some of the bitterest labor-management battles (and art battles) of the Depression take place across the Bay in San Francisco, were a few of a new generation of Northern California watercolorists about to play a part in bringing the changes taking place in American art to the Bay Area. Among these artists were John Haley, Dong Kingman, and Alexander Nepote. Haley, a recent migrant to California from Minnesota and an addition to the art department at the University of California at Berkeley, lived in Richmond, an industrialized peninsula jutting out into San Francisco Bay from its northeast side. He painted his Richmond neighborhood storefronts, piers, and gas tanks in a style that borrowed from Dufy. Haley laid down his gouache-based colors first and then applied the outlines of forms with thin black lines as in his painting Richmond-San Rafael Ferry Arch, a scene not far from his Point Richmond home. Kingman, born in Oakland, grew up in Hong Kong, returning to San Francisco in 1929. In the mid-1930s he went to work for the Federal Art Project, painting watercolors, often of San Francisco neighborhoods like Look Down the Island in which the Bay serves as a background. Nepote was another Oaklander whose damp-looking watercolors, often of rural areas behind the hills that rim the Bay and along the Mendocino coast, were to become a fixture of most subsequent Oakland Art Gallery watercolor shows.

As mentioned earlier, 1934 was also the year in which the PWAP was engineered into existence. Inspired in part by the Mexican government's commissioning of artists to decorate government buildings in Mexico City, the announcement of the PWAP was enthusiastically greeted by American artists who felt that at last they were being taken into the mainstream of American life and that the government recognized that artists had a serious part to play in the national recovery effort.

In August 1935 a much more ambitious and ultimately the longest-lived of the federal art programs was born. A small part of the vast Works Progress Administration, the Federal Art Project was carved up along similar lines with regional divisions. Within each region there were projects for muralists, easel painters (meaning watercolorists as well as painters in oil), graphic artists, sculptors and ceramicists, poster-makers, and historians. Other FAP activities included the development of an "Index of American Design," and programs for designers of museum-style visual aids like dioramas, art teaching, and touring exhibitions.

As finished work emerged from the Easel Painting Projects, it was added to exhibitions touring schools, hospitals, public libraries, department stores, colleges, museums, and community art centers. Kingman and Herman Volz, another among the leaders of the new generation of watercolorists in Northern California, worked for the San Francisco Easel Painting Project. Volz, who came to America from Switzerland in 1934, was especially taken by the industrial horizon of his adopted Bay Area. Many of his watercolors done for the FAP, for example, were of men at work and of docks, piers, and railroad yards. Typical is South of San Francisco, his rendering of track workers and freight cars making the turn toward the Southern Pacific's Third Street station in San Francisco.

Another milestone date for the rapidly growing watercolor scene in the Bay Area was 18 January 1935. On this day the new San Francisco Museum of Art opened its inaugural show, the Fifty-fifth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association, in its new permanent location, the War Memorial Building on Van Ness Avenue. Among the several watercolor exhibitors were Haley; Kingman; Tom Lewis, a recent arrival in San Francisco from Laguna Beach; Maurice Logan, a native of San Francisco; and George Post, an Oaklander. Lewis, like Nepote, dampened his paper before applying his watercolors and showed a special affection for scenes of San Francisco such as Cable Car, his striking view of a cable car rising to the summit, perhaps of Nob Hill. More of a traditionalist in his subjects and choice of colors was Logan who liked boat and harbor scenes. More like Kingman, Post painted in broad, loose strokes and used color in an idiosyncratic way. Post (whose remarks may stand for others) remembered that the quick and spontaneous nature of watercolor application appealed to him. He also liked to paint our-of-doors on the spot, and so the transportable nature of watercolor equipment made that convenient.[20]

Nearly two years later the San Francisco Museum of Art held its first watercolor show, posing competition for the watercolor annuals sponsored by the Oakland Art Gallery across the Bay. Opening in November 1936, it was called the Fall Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association, Watercolors, Pastels, Tempera on Paper.[21] Showing besides the aforementioned artists was Erle Loran, like Haley, a migrant from Minnesota and a new addition to the University of California art department faculty in Berkeley. Loran, again like his fellow Minnesotan, worked in gouache, finding the old lumber towns along the Mendocino coast of special interest.

The Second Annual Watercolor Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art caused the San Francisco Chronicle art, music, and drama critic, Alfred Frankenstein, to categorize the work by techniques and to apply labels to those categories. Reviewing the show, which opened on 2 November 1937, Frankenstein proceeded analytically:

New names and new approaches distinguish the second annual exhibition of watercolors, pastel and tempera on paper sponsored by the San Francisco Art Association and current at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Several tendencies detach themselves. There is, for instance, what might be called the George Grosz school. The German artist's method of painting on wringing wet paper, producing a brilliant polychromatic, fuzzy line, is followed by a good many contributors here, including Tom Lewis, Ruth Fisher, Michael James, Ray Wilson and James Budd Dixon. Erle [Loran], too, seems to have deserted Cézanne for Grosz.Yet none of these is in any sense an imitator; to follow a method does not necessarily mean to follow a manner.

After a paragraph describing individual mannerisms, Frankenstein continued:

There is also what may be labeled the Berkeley.school, a group that practices an art of colored drawing with watercolor and gouache. Theirs is an essentially graphic way of looking at things. Their line is light-handed, neat and precisely delicate. Their composition is usually two dimensional, their color an element of feeling rather than an element of form or modeling. The old master of this Berkeley school, which delights in odd, old and slightly naive aspects of the local scene, is John Haley, whose contributions to any exhibition are always outstanding. Haley is followed extremely well by Doris Miller Johnson (perhaps Haley is the follower, I couldn't say), Ruth Thompson and Patricia Williams.[22]

Frankenstein's Berkeley School of watercolorists was taught, in a literal sense, by Haley and Loran who were in their turn influenced by a revival of some Renaissance techniques championed by Worth Ryder, another member of the University of California art department. Haley liked bright colors, sometimes using watercolors out of the tube, sometimes using tempera, and sometimes gouache. Made with the yolk of an egg, tempera colors were brighter and richer in tone. Used when more opaque areas of a watercolor were desired, gouache could be bought in tubes or produced by adding Chinese White or chalk to duller colors. Haley's interest in watercolors was affected in some degree by his teaching schedule. Since his painting classes were usually scheduled for the late afternoon after most other classes were over, he and his students had some extra time which they used for field trips along the East Bay shoreline and into the nearby hills. One of these field trip students was Virginia Gould who painted from a favorite spot high in the Berkeley Hills overlooking the Bay. Golden Gate Bridge is representative of her taste for cool colors and a fine line.

Ryder, searching for an alternative to the dominating influence of Picasso, grew interested in the techniques and materials of the early Renaissance, in the flatter spaces and in egg tempera painting. His interest was reinforced by the publication in 1932 of Daniel V. Thompson's translation of Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell-Arte or The Craftsman's Handbook, a recipe book for painters that originally appeared in 1437; and Vaclav Vytlacil and Rupert Davidson Turnbull's Egg Tempera Painting: A Manual of Technique in 1935. Vytlacil, incidentally, had been a visiting lecturer on the Renaissance at the University of California's summer session of 1927.

A year in which international political crises held center stage, 1939 was for Bay Area watercolorists, nevertheless, a year of triumph. In addition to the regular annual exhibitions at the Oakland Art Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Art, three major exhibitions of a national and international scope opened: the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in February; the New York World's Fair art exhibition, American Art Today, which included a "San Francisco section" in April; and Frontiers of American Art, a Federal Art Project national exhibition, at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in May. Besides the annuals and the fairs for that year, the San Francisco Museum of Art sponsored a show called Fourteen Bay Area Watercolorists which opened in June. It was, as Alfred Frankenstein remarked, "a watercolor age."[23]

Art was an important part of the Golden Gate International Exposition with murals everywhere visitors looked; a Palace of Fine Arts with some of the greatest examples of European art borrowed from the Louvre and the Uffizi; the exhibition Contemporary Art, representing artists from Australia, Europe, Canada, the United States, and Mexico; and the Art Exhibition by California Artists held in the California Building. In a review of the latter, entitled "The California Show Sidetracks Success," Alfred Frankenstein confessed surprise and bafflement at the omission of works by certain leading watercolorists like Millard Sheets, Barse Miller, Milford Zornes, and Dong Kingman. As for those watercolorists that were represented, his praise was unstinting:

It is something of a relief, however, to turn from the laborious and pretentious character of most of the oils to the simplicity, spontaneity and directness of most of the watercolors. One is tempted to suggest that, except for a few artists, the expensive, pompous medium of oil is outdated, and that the fresher, freer, more volatile and more accessible medium of the watercolor has taken the lead. The list of good watercolors is extremely long.[24]

Among the younger watercolor exhibitors was John Ayres, a recent graduate of the University of California and a student of John Haley. Painted in broad, flat strokes, perhaps with a palette knife, is his Pacific Grove, a 1939 view of that community, the former Methodist colony located at the tip of the Monterey Peninsula.

In the American Art Today exhibition in New York jurors for Northern California or the San Francisco section were Grace L. McCann Morley, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art; Joseph Danysh, regional director of the Federal Art Project for the West Coast; and three painters: Victor Arnautoff, Maurice Sterne, and Lucien Labaudt. Chosen to represent Northern California at the exhibition were watercolorists Victor De Wilde, Edward Johanson, Tom Lewis, and George Post.

At the beginning of May the Federal Art Project-sponsored national show, Frontiers of American Art, opened at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. Work from each of the projects -- Murals and Mosaics, Easel Painting, Graphic Arts, etc.-- and from across the country, was represented. In the section for easel painting, oils and watercolors were listed separately. Northern Californians included Kingman, Post, Volz, and Miné Okubo a young Japanese-American. Okubo was another graduate of the art department at Berkeley who had studied with Haley and Loran and painted in gouache, with strong colors and a bold, expressionist brushstroke as in Berkeley Hills.

In the two years remaining before America entered World War II, California's watercolorists had two more important New York showings in addition to the World's Fair: the 1940 Pacific Coast States Water Color Exhibition sponsored by the California Water Color Society and held at the Riverside Museum in New York and An Exhibition of Two Hundred American Water Colors at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1941. The Whitney exhibition featured the winners in a national competition sponsored by the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, an agency responsible for selecting works of art destined to decorate federal buildings.

The purpose of the Pacific Coast States Water Color Exhibition at the Riverside Museum was, according to the catalog introduction, to "give you a comprehensive view of work in this medium done on the West Coast." In addition to artists from California, the CWCS invited artists from Oregon, Washington, and the Hawaiian Islands to submit work to the jury. Members of the jury from San Francisco, headed by Grace McCann Morley, included Thomas Craig, George Post, Tom Lewis, and Dan Lutz. Edward Alden Jewell in the New York Times in assessing the show, wrote:

Precisely to describe this mode might not be easy. It has to do with clear, clean, often sharply defined, often high-keyed values. Sheer skill of brush frequently winds up in something akin to slickness. The decorative current runs full and strong, a decorative current with eddies of picturesque representation, with eddies of representation that is much more stenographic, even with tiny whirlpools of the abstract; but, all in all, a current characterized by exuberantly swift and sure decorative treatment.[25]

With the coming of the war, the "Northern California scene" shifted to recording the mounting effort in men and materiel. Leah Rinne Hamilton, a regular prewar exhibitor in San Francisco and Oakland as well as back East, watched and painted from her home on the northern slope of Russian Hill the naval buildup in the Bay.

There was another CWCS show at the Riverside Museum in the spring of 1944. Some of the New York reviewers were not as enthusiastic as four years before, and many of the artists whose work had been present then were now caught up in some way with the war.[26] Kingman, for example, was in the army, Haley was away in the Pacific in the navy, Volz was in Hollywood designing sets for propaganda films, and Okubo, unfortunately, was interned in a relocation camp in Utah.

With the end of the war, and after nearly twenty years of American Scene painting, the art scene in Northern California was ready for change. Douglas McAgy, the new director of the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, began remaking the faculty and curriculum almost at once. Newly appointed instructors like Clyfford Still, David Park, and Hassel Smith and summer session visitors like Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt made Abstract Expressionist painting part of the course. Some of the watercolorists, too, began to join the movement away from realism. These included Nepote, James Budd Dixon, Haley, Loran, and Lewis.

With the waning of the spirit and energy which infused the Northern California scene era, it seems appropriate to step back for a wider perspective on its achievements. Certainly the muralists and easel painters, both in oils and watercolors, made art more relevant to far greater numbers of people than had the older French-influenced styles. Relatively few people at the time were familiar with the meaning and influence of Barbizon and the impressionists on American painting, and fewer still felt sympathy for the Parisian Modernists or their American followers. Art also became much more accessible for a great many more Americans through exhibitions in post offices, hospitals, schools, libraries, and other public sites. Before the Second World War there were far fewer numbers of public museums and galleries devoted to art and only a relative handful of college and university galleries. Consequently there were far fewer opportunities to see art, especially outside the big cities.

Like the famous photographic section of the Farm Security Administration and the writer's project of the WPA, Northern California's scene painters helped document California's changing economic and social profile in the 1930s and 1940s. The movement from the farm to the cities that had begun around the turn of the century accelerated and during that time California's urban centers, particularly the Bay Area and Los Angeles, became hubs of Pacific basin commerce and war industry.

Perhaps the most important achievement of all was the role played by watercolorists, in particular, in giving to California its first native painting style. All the earlier Californian styles, from an age dominated by ideals of scientific illustration through the Hudson River-derived landscape years, and to a later Whistler-like and impressionist-derived era were, in spite of many individual triumphs, essentially foreign imports. Working out solutions on their own, Northern California's watercolorists brought brilliant new life to an old medium. They painted a striking version of the California scene which was also memorialized in public murals like those in San Francisco's Coit Tower and in novels like Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, set in California's Central Valley; Max Miller's San Diego-based I Cover the Waterfront and in plays like Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, which takes place in a San Francisco saloon, derived in part from the Black Cat, an artists' hangout on Montgomery Street. Like the muralists and novelists and playwrights, the work of California's watercolorists will forever preserve the memory of a dramatic turn in California's history.

 

Notes:

1. Public Works of Art Project, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, roll DC 12.

2. Public Works of Art Project, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, roll DC 13.

3. Brown also was responsible for the California School of Fine Arts building on Chestnut Street, San Francisco City Hall, and the War Memorial buildings on Van Ness Avenue, in one of which a new San Francisco Museum of Art was about to be located.

4. Masha Zakheim Jewett, Coit Tower, San Francisco: Its History and Art (San Francisco: Volcano Press, 1983), 40. See also Walter Heil Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian institution, roll NDA 3.

5. Richard D. McKinzie, The New Deal for Artists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 33.

6. Jewett, Coit Tower, 51-52.

7. Minutes of the San Francisco Art Commission, 7 August 1934.

8. Edmund Wilson, The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1952), 391.

9. Ibid., 414.

10. Ibid., 440.

11. Thomas Craven, "The Curse of French Culture," Forum 80 (July 1929): 63.

12. Thomas Craven, "American Men of Art," Scribner's 92 (November 1932): 266.

13. Arthur Millier, "New Developments in Southern California Painting," American Magazine of Art 27 (May 1934): 242.

14. Ibid., 244.

15. Yerba Buena in the Spring of 1837 was painted by Jean Jacques Vioget. See Jeanne Van Nostrand, The First Hundred Years of Painting in California, 1775-1875 (San Francisco: John Howell Books, 1980), 12.

16. See Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, The California Water Color Society: Prize Winners 1931-1954; Index to Exhibitions 1921-1954 (Los Angeles: Privately Printed, 1973).

17. First Annual Exhibition: Water Colors, Pastels, Prints, and Drawings, October 8 to November 5, 1933 (Oakland, California: Oakland Art Gallery, 1933).

18. William H. Clapp to Board of Directors, Oakland Free Library, 13 October 1933 (The Oakland Museum, History Department). In another letter to the board, dated December 13, Gertrude Schroder, Clapp's assistant, reported interestingly that "At the present time we are showing an exhibition of the California Water Color Society of Los Angeles. Although this is quite a good exhibition, visitors at the gallery are of the opinion that our First Annual Water Color exhibition was considerably better." Gertrude Schroder to Board of Directors, Oakland Free Library, 19 December 1933 (The Oakland Museum, History Department).

19. Ibid.

20. George Post, telephone interview with author, September 1990. In the course of the same conversation, Post was asked if he sensed any difference in attitude or outlook among his Southern California watercolor contemporaries. Post said no, only that individual temperaments seemed to play a role. See also Ruth Teiser, George Post: A California Watercolorist (Berkeley, California: University of California, Regional Oral History Office, 1984).

21. A group of San Francisco commercial artists billing themselves on their stationery as the "Thirteen Watercolorists" began a series of annual exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art in the spring of 1937. Members of this group were Lonie Fee, William R. Cameron, Paul T. Carey, Willard R. Cox, James H. Forman, Haines Hall, Nat Levy, Orson Linn, Phillip Little, Maurice Logan, Alton C. Painter, Paul A. Schmitt, and Francis A. Todhunter.

22. San Francisco Chronicle, 7 November 1937. A few years later, H. L. Dungan, art critic of the Oakland Tribune, offered another opinion: "In the main, as we see it, it [the Berkeley School] consists of ignoring shadows, which are difficult to paint and nuisances anyway; drawing houses with lines, for no painting without houses is painting a sky that begins with a patch of blue but doesn't go either hither or yon, adding a wall of cerise bricks held together with dull vermilion mortar and going no place in particular, and applying many dots and dashes which probably are crying 'S.O.S.' to persons parking snappy cars on the right side of the street in a world where shadows fall pleasantly as the sun goes down." Oakland Tribune, 18 February 1940.

23. San Francisco Chronicle, 18 February 1940.

24. San Francisco Chronicle, 16 July 1939.

25. New York Times, 10 March 1940.

26. A reviewer wrote that "The California Water Color Society, in its exhibition in the Riverside Museum, provides very little news. There is plenty of cleverness in the work, plenty of ambition, plenty of exuberance, but not much originality and not much real feeling for the medium." New York Sun. Typed summary of reviews, not dated, in a letter of Robert H. Kennicott, second vice-president, California Water Color Society.

 

About the Author

At the time of publication of the book American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, Raymond L. Wilson was an art historian, writer, and lecturer at San Francisco State University, and a regular contributor to the scholarly literature on American art in the West.

 

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