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The Palace of Fine Arts at Close Range
The path leading to the northern end of the colonnade attracted us. It brought us to the beautiful little grove of Monterey cypress that McLaren had saved from the old Harbor View restaurant, for so many years one of the most curious and picturesque of the San Francisco resorts, one of the few on the bay-side. Though the architect frankly admired Paul Bartlett's realistic "Wounded Lion," the pieces of sculpture set out on the grass bothered him somewhat. He couldn't find any justification for their being there. He wanted them, as he said, in a setting. "I think I can see what the purpose was in putting them here, to provide decoration that would be unobtrusive. But some of these pieces, like Bartlett's, stand out conspicuously and deserve to be treated with more consideration. Besides, there's always danger of weakening a glorious conception like Maybeck's by putting too many things into it, creating an artistic confusion."
We began to see how the colonnade in Gerome's painting had worked its influence. It was easy to imagine two chariots tearing along here, between the columns, after the ancient fashion. And those bushes, to the right, rising on the lower wall, between the vases, surely had the character of over-growth. They carried out Maybeck's idea of an abandoned ruin.
The architect pointed to the top of the wall: "The little roof-garden on the edge of the upper wall gives the Egyptian note in the architecture that many people have felt and it is emphasized by the deep red that Guerin has applied, the shade that's often found in Egyptian ruins."
Above the main entrance of the palace we saw Lentelli's "Aspiration," that had been the cause of so much criticism and humorous comment during the first few weeks of the Exposition. "Lentelli had a hard time with that figure. It drove him almost to distraction. Perhaps a genius might have solved the problem of making the figure seem to float; but I doubt if it could have been solved by anyone. The foot-rest they finally decided to put under it didn't help the situation much."
Directly in front of "Aspiration," on its high pedestal, stood Charles Grafly's monumental statue of "The Pioneer Mother." "I suppose the obvious in sculpture has its place," the architect remarked, "and this group will appeal to popular sentiment. Its chief value lies in its celebrating a type of woman that deserves much more recognition than she has received in the past. Most of the glory of the pioneer days has gone to the men. The women, however, in the background, had to share in the hardships and often did a large part of the work. It's a question in my mind whether this woman quite represents the vigorous type that came over the plains in the prairie schooner. However, just as she is, she is fine, and she has a strong hand that looks as if it had been made for spanking. I wonder why the sculptor gave her that kind of head-covering. She might have appeared to better advantage bare-headed. The children are excellent. Observe the bright outlook of the boy and the timid attitude of the girl. There's a fine tenderness in the care the girl is getting from her mother and from the boy, too, suggesting dawning manhood. Altogether, the group has nobility and it's worthy of being a permanent monument for San Francisco. By the way, there's the old Roman idea of the decorative use of the bull's head again, at the base of the group. It has a very happy application here. It reminds us of the oxen that helped to get the Easterners out to California in the old days before the railroads. A good many of them must have dropped in their tracks and left their skulls to bleach in the sun."
The other ornamental design we found very appropriate and direct, as we studied the pedestal. There was the ship that used to go round the horn, with the torches that suggested civilization, and, at the back of the pedestal, the flaming sun that celebrated the Golden Gate.
In the rotunda we found Paul Bartlett, represented again by the equestrian statue of Lafayette, in full uniform, advancing sword in the air. It unquestionably had a magnificent setting, though it suffered by being surrounded by so many disturbing interests. "The director of the Fine Arts Department cared enough about this figure to have it duplicated for the Exposition. It's a good example of the old-fashioned heroic sculpture, where the subjects take conventional dramatic attitudes."
The ceiling of the rotunda displayed those much-discussed murals by Robert Reid. Up there they seemed like pale reflections. "You should have seen them when they were in Machinery Hall. Then they were magnificent. But the instant they were put in place it was plain that the effect had been miscalculated. At night, under the lighting, they show up better. Judged by themselves, apart from their surroundings, they are full of inspiration and poetry. Only a man of genuine feeling and with a fine color-sense could have done them. But in all this splendor of architecture they are lost."
On examining them in detail we found that they covered an extraordinarily wide range of fancy, graceful and dramatic, even while, save in one panel, they showed an indifference to story-telling. One group celebrated "The Birth of European Art," with the altar and the sacred flame, tended by a female guardian and three helpers, and with a messenger reaching from his chariot to seize the torch of inspiration and to bear it in triumph through the world, the future intimated by the crystal held in the hands of the woman at the left. Another, "The Birth of Oriental Art," told the ancient legend of a Chinese warrior who, seated on the back of a dragon, gave battle to an eagle, the symbol relating to man's seeking inspiration from the air. "Ideals in Art" brought forward more or less familiar types: the Madonna and the Child, Joan of Arc, Youth and Beauty, in the figure of a girl, Vanity in the Peacock, with more shadowy intimations in two mystical figures in the background, the tender of the sacred flame and the bearer of the palm for the dead, and the laurel-bearer ready to crown victory. "The Inspiration in All Art" revealed the figures of Music, Architecture, Painting, Poetry and Sculpture. Four other panels glorified the four golds of California, gold, wheat, poppies and oranges, a happy idea, providing opportunities for the splendid use of color.
"It's a pity those murals couldn't have been tried out up there and then taken down and done over," said the architect. "But sometime they will find the place where they belong, perhaps in one of our San Francisco public buildings. They're too good not to have the right kind of display."
"The Priestess of Culture," by Herbert Adams, one of the best-known of American sculptors, eight times repeated, we felt, had its rightful place up there and blended into the general architectural scheme. But some of the other pieces of statuary might have been left out with advantage.
Through the columns we caught many beautiful vistas. And those groups of columns themselves made pictures. "What is most surprising about this palace is the way it grows on you. The more familiar you are with it the more you feel the charm. Maybeck advises his friends to come here by moonlight when they can get just the effect he intended. In all the Exposition there's no other spot quite so romantic. It might have been built for lovers."