Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on October 14, 2008 with permission of the author and the Long Beach Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition brochure from which it is excerpted, please contact the Long Beach Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970
by Ronald C. Nelson
As the nineteenth century came to a close, European painting movements continued to hold sway over the Western art world. This was also largely true in Southern California where painters often emulated the Barbizon school in France, with its focus on realistic yet heroic depictions of people and their natural surroundings. Craving a more dynamic way to depict the stunning and sun-dappled landscapes of California, some of these artists traveled to Europe where they encountered the nascent Impressionist movement. Immediately sensing that this new style of painting en plein-air ("in the open air") was an ideal way to capture the vistas of Southern California, a number of leading California artists at the time studied in Paris at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, alongside their East Coast counterparts. Upon returning to Southern California, these artists produced a visually sublime record of the landscapes around them. Taking advantage of the natural California light, verdant hillsides and the beautiful uninterrupted coastline, their works rivaled those being created on the East Coast and in Europe.
As Southern California began to change in the first few decades of the twentieth century, so too, did the artists' subject matter. With urbanism expanding to accommodate a rapidly growing population, younger artists began to paint and document the results of human activity on the previously idyllic landscape. Artists became interested in painting not only the landscape, but also what was happening to the landscape. The California Scene movement was born.
The population of Southern California grew by leaps and bounds in the years between the Great Depression to just after World War II. With record migrations of people from the Midwest and East Coast, the region drew people with its beautiful climate, open spaces, stunning beaches and promises of a better life. The rapid and expansive growth of Southern California cities and the accompanying construction of homes, businesses and infrastructure provided appealing subjects for the California Scene painters whose resulting paintings are not only engaging works of art, but also documents of the physical and social changes that were taking place.
The California Scene movement is inextricably linked to the Chouinard Art Institute (the venerable Los Angeles-based art school that was later merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and renamed California Institute of the Arts or Cal Arts). A number of early California Scene painters, including Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Ben Messick, Charles Payzant and Emil Kosa, Jr. studied and later taught at Chouinard. A few of them shared boarding house rooms in downtown Los Angeles and remained colleagues and friends throughout their careers and lifetimes. Many of these Chouinard-educated artists worked in Hollywood painting sets and illustrating story boards while others, including Phil Dike, Millard Sheets, Charles Payzant, and Ben Messick, all worked as animators for Disney Studios. (It is interesting to note that while working on these highly imaginative films of fantasy such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Snow White, this group of artists continued to explore social realism and urban life in their California Scene paintings.) Another artist included in the exhibition, Emil Kosa Jr., won an Oscar in 1963 for his visual effects work on Cleopatra. George Gibson, then Head of the MGM Scenic Department, contributed his expertise for the Arts of Southern California III: Art in Film produced and circulated by the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1958.
The majority of the works in California, Seen were executed in watercolor, an easily transportable and quick-drying medium that allowed artists to work outdoors in the radiant climate of Southern California. Their "scenes" were often painted at specific moments when the artist could take advantage of the natural light. Their use of watercolor as their medium of choice rather than as a preliminary sketch separated them from East Coast art traditions. The national media took notice in 1941 of the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art purchase of watercolors by nine California artists including Phil Dike and Emil Kosa Jr.
Although often depicting idyllic images of coastal scenes or rolling hills, many California Scene paintings delve into headier issues. Not unlike their East coast counterparts whose frequently brooding American Regionalist works were popularized around the time of the Great Depression, California Scene paintings embrace the social realities of the time, albeit with the optimism of California as the promised-land. To provide context and comparisons, California, Seen includes works by some of the most well-known American Regionalist artists: Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Irwin Hoffman, and John Costigan.
Images of industry large and small and people at work abound in the paintings in this exhibition. From Joseph Weisman's Rolling Steel to Leon Amyx's Lettuce Weeders, American ingenuity and hard work are on full view. In addition, places of amusement and people at play were popular subjects for California Scene artists. The Pike in Long Beach drew the attention of many a painter as did visiting circuses and carnivals.
A number of California Scene artists, Ben Messick among them, choose to live and paint near the coast. Messick's studio was located on St. Joseph Avenue in nearby Belmont Shore and the Long Beach Museum of Art presented an exhibition of his works in 1957. Phil Dike's classic watercolor Newport Jetty painted in 1950 and his small but beautifully rendered Newport Cove capture the exhilaration of seaside activities along the California coast.
Perhaps the most prolific and influential artist of the California Scene movement, Millard Sheets, was a popular New Deal artist and a director of the Public Works of Art Project. This experience and his lifelong interest in civic planning and architecture revealed itself in his work. Sheets' 1927 painting depicting the construction of the 7th Street Bridge in downtown Los Angeles is an early example of his civic leanings. His keen observations and interest in public art lead to the creation of 45 painted murals and 38 large scale mosaic murals for Home Savings and Loan buildings across Southern California.
As a state and a state of mind, California is in constant flux and reinvention. New buildings, roads and ideas sprout up in a seemingly endless supply. For a century, people have streamed into the state chasing dreams of stardom, a better life or a new beginning. And while many works in this exhibition hearken back to a different time with their confident images of new construction, robust laborers or people enjoying the newfound bounty of the state's outdoor offerings, there is also a timeless quality to the images, only betrayed by fashion and style, that invites the viewer to not only consider California's past but also its future.
Special thanks to the generous lenders to this exhibition: Sandy Hunter, Craig and GiGi Barto, Mike and Ania Sullivan, Don and Madeline Heimark, Dr. Jeffery Mitchell, Rabbi Karen Fox, Jean Gibson-Gorrindo, Steve Holmes, Ken Davis and Luis Morente. I'd also like to thank George and Millie Griffith for their generous donation of eight remarkable American Regionalist works to the Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation's permanent collection.
California, Seen would not have been possible without the generous support of American Express, the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation, Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, Gordon and Ruth Dougherty Foundation, the Port of Long Beach, Farmers & Merchants Bank, Bess J. Hodges Foundation, the B.C. McCabe Foundation, Bud and Mary Ellen Kilsby, Sandy Hunter and others. Special thanks to S. Baba and J. Cummins Keck.
About the author
Ronald C. Nelson is Executive Director of the Long Beach Museum of Art.
About California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970
The Long Beach Museum of Art is presenting California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970 from September 26, 2008 to April 5, 2009. The exhibit examines the important California Scene Painting movement through paintings and prints depicting the rural, urban, and changing landscape of southern California by such featured artists as Loren Roberta Barton, Emil Kosa, Phil Dike, Leon Amyx and Charles Keck -- some of the most well-known California Scene practitioners.
As opposed to the often dark and brooding realist styles from other parts of the country, many of the works in California, Seen were painted in vibrant watercolor. The medium, owing its popularity to the radiant climate of southern California, allowed artists to work outdoors and capture their "scenes" at specific moments when the natural light was ideal. (Oil paints being generally too messy and unwieldy to transport and use away from the studio). Although often dealing with heady issues of social realism, urbanism and industrialization, California Scene painters generally portrayed their environments as fresh, energetic bastions of natural beauty and American ingenuity. To provide context, the exhibition begins with works representing the regionalist movements that were popular in the Midwest and New York, including works by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and others.
California, Seen will be enjoyed by approximately 20,000 visitors, and roughly 2,500 Long Beach Unified School District students. The Museum is planning a full spectrum of free educational activities for children and adults that will explore the themes, historical background and artistic techniques presented in the exhibition. Activities include lectures, artist discussions and tours, as well as artmaking activities for both children and adults, including opportunities to paint outdoors as did many of the artists in the exhibition. Additionally, the Museum will provide students and their teachers with California, Seen programming through the Museum's KidsVisions program that targets all of the District's fifth-grade classes, and the Transitional Art Program that provides all 200 students at Bethune Transitional School for Homeless Students with visual arts lessons and hands-on activities at their school site and at the Museum.
Images of selected artworks for California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970
(above: Dana Bartlett, California Coast, Laguna, 1936, Watercolor on paper, 14 1/2 x 19 1/4 inches. Federal Art Project, Collection of the Long Beach Museum of Art 85-6.17. Long Beach Museum of Art)
(above: Leonard Cutrow, Transition, 1947, Watercolor on paper, 20 x 28 inches. Gift of Allan Cutrow and Robert Cutrow 2004.85. Long Beach Museum of Art)
To view five additional images for the exhibition please click here.
Checklist for California, Seen: Landscapes of a Changing California, 1930-1970
Working Checklist as of Thursday, August 28, 2008