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The Court of Abundance
The Court of Abundance is the most original, and perhaps the most consistently beautiful, of all the Exposition courts. No other is so clearly complete in itself, without the intrusion of features from surrounding buildings and courts. No other has the same effect of cloistered seclusion partly because each of the others is open on one side. And certainly no other indicates so clearly the touch of the artist, of the poet-architect, from the organic structural plan to the finest bit of detail. Even the massive central fountain, though conceived in such different spirit, has no power to dispel the almost ethereal charm that hovers over the place.
The distinctive note of the court is one of exquisite richness. As one enters from any side the impression grows that this is the most decorative of all the courts; and yet one is not conscious of any individual bit of decoration as such. Everything fits perfectly: arches, tower, cornices, finials, statues, planting - it all goes to enrich the one impression. Someone has said that the court is not architecture, but carving; and that suggests perfectly the decorative wealth of the composition.
The style of architecture has been guessed at as everything from Romanesque and Gothic to Flamboyant Renaissance and Moorish. The truth is that the court is a thoroughly original conception; and the architect has clothed his pre-conceived design in forms that he has borrowed from all these styles as they happened to suit his artistic purpose. The spirit of the court is clearly Gothic, due to the accentuation of the vertical lines - and one will note how the slender cypresses help the architecture to convey this impression. The rounded arches, modified in feeling by the decorative pendent lanterns, hint of the awakening of the Renaissance period in Spain, during the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, when the vertical lines, and decorative leaf and other symbolic ornaments of the severer Gothic, were so charmingly combined with classic motives.
The architecture here is inspiring as a symbol of the American "melting-pot." It is a distinct and original evolution, recalling the great arts of Europe, and yet eluding classification. The court shows that the designer was master of the styles of the past, but refused to be a slave to them; at the same time he had an original conception but did not let it run into the blatant and bizarre. It is from such fusions of individual genius with the traditions of the past that a distinctive American architecture is most likely to flower.
The tower is a magnificent bit of architectural design. It is massive and yet delicate. It dominates the court, and yet it fits perfectly into the cloister. The rich sculpture is so much a part of the decorative scheme that there is no impression of the structure having been "ornamented." One must search long in the histories of architecture to find a tower more satisfying.
The architect who designed the Court of Abundance is Louis Christian Mullgardt, one of the two most original geniuses among California's architects.
It is well to enjoy this court at first for its beauty alone, without regard to its rich symbolism. One who has thus considered it, merely as a delight to the eye, usually is surprised to find that it has a deeper underlying meaning than any of the other courts. The present name, "Court of Abundance," is not the original one. The architect conceived it as "The Court of The Ages." It is said that the Exposition directors, for the rather foolish reason that a Court of the Ages would not fit into the scheme of a strictly contemporaneous exposition, re-christened it "The Court of Abundance." But it is the former name that sums up the thought behind the decorative features.
The underlying idea is that of evolution. The tower sculptures, which will be more fully explained in following paragraphs, represent successive ages in the development of man - the Stone Age, the Mediaeval Age, and the Present Age. The decoration of the cloisters may be taken as symbolizing the evolution of primitive man from the lower forms of life. Thus the ornamental garlands that run up the sides of the arches are of seaweed, while other parts of the decoration show crabs, lobsters and other of the lower forms of sea life. Higher up the ornament includes conventionalized lilies suggestive of higher plant life. And surmounting the colonnade, one over each pier, are the repeated figures of primitive man and primitive woman. It is at this height that the tower sculptures begin, carrying on the story of man up to the present age. At a level between the Stone Age group and the Mediaeval Age is a row of cocks, symbols of the rise of Christianity. Perhaps the whole aspiring feeling of the court is meant to further suggest the upward rise of man - but after all, the purely sensuous beauty of the architecture is sufficient to warrant its being, without any straining after symbolism.
Groups on the Tower. The three main groups typify the rise of man, and especially the rise of man's civilization through religion. The lowest group, over the main arch, is called The Stone Age. Along the base are prehistoric monsters, and above are figures representing various phases of primitive life, as a man strangling an animal with his hands, and a figure that may suggest the rude beginnings of art or industry. The heads indicate a period of evolution when man was not very different from the ape; but the central figures suggest the development of family life, and a new outlook and a seeking for something higher.
The middle group, The Mediaeval Age, shows an armored figure with sword and shield, a crusader perhaps, with the force of religion symbolized in the priest or monk at one side, and the force of arms suggested by the archer at the other, these being the two forces by which man was rising in that age.
The third and highest group represents The Spirit of the Present Age enthroned. At one side a child holds the book of learning, while at the other a child holds the wheel of industry. The group also carries inevitably a suggestion of motherhood.
Flanking the middle group are two figures, in which the whole idea of human evolution is suggested by a modern man and woman outgrowing their old selves. On the east and west faces of the tower are figures representing "Thought."
All the sculpture on the tower is by Chester Beach.
Figures Surmounting Colonnade. Two figures of "The Primitive Man" and one of "The Primitive Woman" are repeated above the cloister all around the court. The woman carries a child on her back, one man is feeding a pelican, and the other is a hunter returning with a club in one hand and his quarry in the other. These figures are remarkably well suited to their purpose, balancing one another exactly; they are so much a part of the decorative scheme, indeed, that the average person is likely to overlook their merits as individual statues. Albert Weinert was the sculptor.
The Water Sprites. At the tower side of the court, flanking the stairway that leads to the archway under the tower, are two free-standing monuments that were designed as fountains. The original plan called for cascades from below the Stone Age group on the tower to these monuments. Although the elimination of this feature made the court more simple and satisfying as a whole, the figures of the Water Sprites were left high and dry, so that now there is a certain incongruity in their position. Still one may admire the very spirited girl archers surmounting the tw columns, even if they are apparently launching arrows at their sister sprites below, instead of into jets of water as was intended. The figures at the bases of the columns, while lacking the grace and the joyous verve of those above, still are very decorative. All are the work of Leo Lentelli.
The Fountain of Earth. In the large basin in the center of the Court of Abundance is Robert Aitken's "Fountain of Earth." While plainly out of keeping with the spirit of the court, this is in itself one of the most powerful and most interesting sculptural compositions at the Exposition. It is deeply intellectual, and more than any other group it requires an explanation of the symbolism before one can appreciate it.
The fountain is really in two compositions. The larger, and central, one is composed of a globe representing the earth, with four panels of figures on the four sides, representing certain of the incidents of life on earth, or certain riddles of existence. The secondary composition lies to the south of the central one, on the same pedestal; and this is divided into two groups by a formalized wing through the center. The two scenes here represent life before and after earthly existence. The two huge arms and the wing are all that can be seen of Destiny, the force with which the allegorical story begins and ends.
To "read" the fountain in proper sequence, one must start with the west face of the secondary group. This represents The Beginning of Things. The arm of Destiny is calling forth life and points the way to the earth. The three women figures next to the hand show the gradual awakening from Oblivion. The adjoining two figures represent the kiss of life or of love, and the woman is holding forth to the earth the children created of that love. The entire group on this west face, considered in relation to the main composition, may be taken as representing the peopling of the earth.
There is now a gap which one must pass over, to reach the South panel of the central composition. This gap represents the lost period of time between the peopling of the earth and the beginning of history.
The South panel of the main structure has as its central figure Vanity with her hand-glass. Whether the artist intended it as a pessimistic commentary on all human life, or not, his series of episodes on earth begins and ends with the figure of Vanity. Reading to the left on this same panel one sees a man and a woman starting the journey of life on earth, apparently with suffering but certainly with courage perhaps for the sake of the children they carry.
The West panel now shows the first of three incidents or problems of life on earth. This is entitled Natural Selection. Two women turn to one man who is clearly superior to the two men they are leaving. The two who have been spurned as mates cling to the hands of the women even while they are turning away.
The North panel represents The Survival of the Fittest. Two men are in combat, the woman at the left evidently to be the prize of the victor. At the other side a woman tries to draw away one of the combatants. The sculptor has given this group a second title, "The Awakening of the War Spirit," which is equally applicable.
The East panel is entitled The Lesson of Life. A young man and a young woman turn to each other through natural impulse, while an older woman with the experience of life attempts to counsel them. On the other side an old man restrains an impetuous youth who evidently would fight for the girl.
Turning the corner now to the South panel again, there are two figures representing Lust trying to embrace a reluctant woman. Then one comes to Vanity once more, and the story of life on earth is done. Again there is a gap, and the scene leaves the earth for the unknown world after physical death.
The East face of the minor group first shows the figure of Greed, with his worldly goods now turned literally to a ball of clay in his hands, gazing back at earth in puzzlement. The next two figures show Faith offering the hope of immortality (as symbolized in the scarab) as consolation to a sorrowing woman. Finally there are two figures sinking back into Oblivion, drawn by the hand of Destiny. Thus the cycle from Oblivion through life and back to Oblivion is completed.
In the same basin, at the far south end, is a figure of The Setting Sun. This was part of the artist's conception of the Fountain of Earth, the relation to the main group being found in the supposition that the earth is a mass thrown off by the sun. Thus is emphasized the idea that the earth and life on earth are but a very small part of the wider unknown universe and life.
At the four corners of the main composition of the fountain, separating the four panels, are Hermae, terminal pillars such as the Greeks and Romans were fond of, decorated with the head of Hermes, god of boundaries.
Having worked out the story, it is well to go back to appreciate the purely aesthetic qualities of the fountain. Note especially the feeling of strength in the figures, the firm modeling, and the fine way in which the figures are grouped. The composition of the west face of the minor monument is especially fine, and the very graceful lines here make an intimate appeal that is not evident in some of the other groups. The whole monument is austere and strongly compelling rather than intimately charming. If it is the first duty of art to make people think, this is the most successful bit of sculpture on the grounds.
The mural paintings in, the Court of Abundance consist of eight panels by Frank Brangwyn, perhaps the greatest living mural decorator, placed in the four corners of the cloister. Though not entirely in key with the color scheme and not an integral part of the court as a whole, these are distinctly the works of a master. Ultra-learned critics will tell you that they fail as decorations, since they are interesting as individual pictures rather than as panels heightening the architectural charm. But their placing shows clearly that there was no intention that they should appear as part of the architectural scheme. It is better to accept them as pictures, forgetting the set standards by which one ordinarily judges mural painting.
The eight paintings represent the elements: two panels each for Fire, Earth, Air and Water. There are no conventional figures here personifying the elements, but scenes from the life of intensely human people, typifying the uses to which man has put the elements.
Fire. Beginning on the tower side of the court, at the northeast corner, are the two panels representing Fire. The one on the north wall is called "Primitive Fire." A group of figures surround a fire, some nursing it and some holding out their hands to the heat, while a man at the back brings fagots. Note the color accents in the robes of the three standing figures.
"Industrial Fire," on the east wall, represents the bringing of fire into the service of man. In some particulars this is among the finest of the paintings, but the transverse cloud of smoke seems to break it awkwardly.
Earth is represented in the two panels in the northwest corner. The one on the north wall is entitled "The Fruit Pickers," typifying the wealth of products that man obtains from the earth. This is perhaps the richest of the panels, in the profusion of color and of alluring form.
The panel on the west wall is "The Dancing of the Grapes," a variation of the theme of "The Fruit Pickers." It tells the story of the grape: above are the pickers and the harvesters with baskets; at the right two figures dancing to crush the juices from the grapes; and in the foreground a group with the finished wine. The confusion of figures at first is puzzling; but viewed simply as a spotting of bright colors there is no finer panel among them all. It is better to stand well back along the colonnade, and forgetting the subject, to delight in the purely sensuous impression.
Air is represented in the two panels in the southwest corner. The one on the south wall is called "The Hunters." The theme is suggested in the idea of the arrows fleeing on the wings of the air, and also by the flight of birds above.
The panel on the west wall is called "The Windmill." Note how the feeling of moving air is suggested everywhere: in the skies at the back, in the clouds and the kites, in the trees and the grain-field, in the draperies, and even in the figures themselves that are braced against the wind. The coloring is glorious, and the composition fine. The disposition of masses of light and dark is notable the dark figures grouped against the golden grain, and the gold-brown windmill against the dark sky. No panel in the grounds will better repay intensive study.
Water is represented in the panels of the southwest corner of the court. The one on the south wall is called "The Net," and typifies the wealth that man draws from the water. A group of fishermen are hauling in a net, and carriers bring baskets at the back.
"The Fountain," the panel on the east wall, shows a group of people who have come to fill their jars at a spring. The colors here are softer, though quite as rich as elsewhere. The lower half of the painting is, indeed, like a richly colored mosaic.
After examining "The Fountain" at close range it is well to step back to the middle of this south corridor. Look first at "The Windmill" and then turn to look again at "The Fountain." Note, how, when the subjects are once understood, the great distance increases rather than decreases the charm of the paintings. Note especially how beautiful each one is when considered merely as a pattern of color. These two panels, if not the finest of all, at least must take rank among the best three or four.
The North Court of Abundance
Passing under the tower from the Court of Abundance one comes out in the little north court that is conceived in the same spirit, and which likewise is dominated by the Mullgardt tower. The architecture here is like an echo of that of the main court, the decorated spaces alternating with bare spaces. The tower sculptures are all repeated on this side. The only sculpture within the north court is Sherry Fry's personification of Aquatic Life. The statue is of a heavy sort that should be anywhere but in this place of ethereal mood and exquisite detailed workmanship. Blot out the background and you can see that the figure has a certain solid grace. But if designed for this court it fails of its decorative purpose.