Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Art and Women Artists in California, Part Three

Panama Pacific International Exposition
ca. 1915
San Francisco, California
One of the most important events to happen in the West, with regards to art, was the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition, which opened in February 1915. This enormous enterprise was erected on a marshy site reclaimed from the bay (now known as the Marina District) to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.  Over fifty years in the making, it was dubbed "The 13th Labor of Hercules." [1]  The waterway promised to profit California as the midway port between the East Coast and Asia. The exposition offered the largest display of up-to-the-moment art ever shown in the state.
The Exposition was just the event that the city needed in 1915. The art world in San Francisco had languished since the 1906 earthquake and fire. From 1906 until 1915, there had been few displays of art, other than a small, permanent show at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, and annual shows at the San Francisco Art Association. The Panama-Pacific Exposition rekindled San Francisco’s art world, bringing in architects, landscape designers, interior designers, sculptors, and painters from the East to design, construct, and decorate the site. It attracted East Coast artists, either as tourists, or to help install their work in the fair’s huge art exhibition. [2] The beauty of the architecture in the Beaux-Arts-style, travertine-faced buildings, arranged around open courtyards and patios, gave painters a subject never before seen in rustic California—an urban park. The exposition left San Francisco its first art museum—the Palace of Fine Arts.
Palace of Fine Arts
Panama Pacific Exposition
San Francisco
ca. 1915
Not only was the exposure of artists to the architecture and texture of the stone of the Beau Arts buildings at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 groundbreaking, it was also the collection of more than 10,000 works of art representing almost all the important styles of the recent past that had created excitement in the artists’ community. More important for California painters, were several galleries of French and American Impressionist paintings. Despite the availability of art reproductions in magazines and books, friends who had traveled to, or studied in Paris, attended the Exposition and could describe French Impressionism firsthand. A California artist’s reaction to seeing a large group of California Impressionist paintings must have been almost overwhelming. Although French Impressionism had been developed nearly forty years earlier, and was no longer avant-garde, what the artists saw at the Pan-Pacific Exhibition were entire rooms filled with paintings of light and air.
Isabel Percy West
Maartje and Neltje in the Yard
ca. 1913
16 x 12.75 inches
Women artists participated in the Exposition as well. Isabelle Percy West grew up in Alameda, California and studied at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco. West was one of the founders of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and was a Professor of Design there for many years. West designed book plates and worked in oils, pastels, watercolor and lithography. In 1915, she won a bronze medal for lithography at the Exposition. Constance Macky was born in Australia and studied at the National Gallery School of Painting in Melbourne. She moved to San Francisco and, with her husband, taught large classes in painting and drawing at the San Francisco Art Institute. The couple collaborated on decorative panels in the Exposition and also exhibited paintings in the Palace of Fine Arts.

Constance Lillian Jenkins Macky
Trees overlooking a Valley
ca. 1919
Oil on canvas
20 x 16 inches

The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition at the San Francisco Museum of Art mounted two exhibits that discussed the significant contributions of women artists. Those exhibits: “California Art in Retrospect” and “California Art Today,” stated that, throughout the eras (both early and contemporary), women artists enriched California’s visual heritage through their work as painters, art educators, art jurors, newspaper art critics, gallery owners, museum administrators, collectors and patrons. They were essential to the growth and development of California culture, and as educators, furthered art education, and contributed to public art exhibitions. [3] Yet, as I've previously discussed, the names of many women artists have remained largely anonymous and their contributions unacknowledged.
Despite the conservative preferences of Southern California art buyers—they wanted paintings that would fit into their tiny bungalows—California Impressionism was such a natural way to transcribe the local landscape that it continued to grow in popularity and to evolve in style. Artists such as Helena Dunlap, returned from study in Paris, brought with her new impressionist ideas, and influenced others by her exhibitions at the California Art Club.[4]
Helena Dunlap
Flowering Coastal Dunes
Oil on canvas
18 x 24 inches
An abundance of flowers, both cultivated and wild blooming all year round, became the theme of paintings, as Southern California landscapists of the 1920s created idealized, romantic, scenes. The genre flourished, encouraged by boom times, the relatively inexpensive living conditions, and the freedom from restraint with regards to the art environment, which gave free rein to creativity. In addition, the Los Angeles Times wrote supportive reviews that encouraged several hundred landscapists from professionals, to housewives and businessmen, to adopt the bright colors and broken brushwork of the French Impressionist style.
The diverse group of artists who came to Southern California did so for a variety of reasons: a bright, sunny, climate that is ideal for out-of-doors painting, an opportunity to settle in a fresh environment, a need to escape tight restrictions of the Eastern art milieu. It was a decision calculated to improve their art and, once in California, most artists recognized the potential benefit to their art. Consequently, the artists either settled permanently or established part-time studios. By 1915, both Southern and Northern California had healthy and complex art communities, and the artistic differences between the two were diminishing rapidly.
The young artists who born in California that went to art school in San Francisco and Los Angeles were introduced to, and influenced by, Ashcan School painters, through exhibitions at galleries, and shows at museums such as the Los Angeles Museum in Exposition Park. The Ashcan school artists focused on genre paintings of people and city scenes. California artists soon found out that art buyers in California were not interested in the lives of ordinary people engaging in everyday activities. What the art of the Ashcan School did foster was attendance at museum exhibitions that popularized this style of painting as American Scene Painting or Regionalism.
San Diego's Panama-California Exposition
San Diego, California
Also influencing the change in art was San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition, which opened at the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1914. Although smaller in scope and somewhat overshadowed by the Exposition in San Francisco, it nevertheless stimulated the art world in San Diego. The Spanish Colonial style of architecture, with its columned arcades, patios, and red-tiled roofs, became synonymous with the state and inspired the first of California’s many Spanish revivals. Work in the exhibition included art by New York modernists from the Ashcan School, to works by contemporary Southern California artists gathered by the then-powerful California Art Club of Los Angeles. Any California artist attending both expositions would have seen contemporary art from most of the Western World!

 [1] Museum of American Heritage, “A Sense of Wonder: The 1915 San Francisco World's Fair,” http://www.moah.org/exhibits/archives/1915/ (accessed November 20, 2010). Website devoted to the Fair and the locations of murals and structures that still exist in San Francisco and beyond. 
 [2] Moure, California Art, 149.
 [3] Moore, Yesterday and Tomorrow: California Women Artists, 74.
 [4] Moure. California Art, 162.

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