PRINT January 1965

Man: Glory, Jest & Riddle, Parts I & II

CELEBRATING THE THESIS of the second epistle of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” San Francisco’s three museums recently joined in organizing an exhibition giving a broad survey of the human figure in art through the ages. It was arbitrarily divided among them, and this year being the 40th anniver­sary of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor may have had something to do not only with the timing of the project, but with the assignment to it of that period of art most influenced by the French.

Man: Glory, Jest and Riddle was chosen as the final title (from the last line of the poem), and works of art selected to record the erratic pattern of Man’s destiny as the artists have seen it. With much fanfare the show opened simultaneously at all three museums, and it was immediately apparent that, despite the capacity of the galleries, the subject had been treated at surface level only. One suspects that the museums had taken on a greater task than their time and resources could accommodate, exposing the glory and the jest of San Francisco’s museum situa­tion. Even such matters as the failure of both the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor to pro­vide adequate explanatory notes for the edification of that portion of the public unable to afford the excellent but expensive catalog became a glaring oversight as the opening week wore on, especially at the de Young, where, because of its central loca­tion in Golden Gate Park, whole families troop through the galleries.

To the de Young Museum fell the Herculean as­signment of “Man: The Glory,” beginning with that period of man’s early development as an artist when by means of collective endeavor he found himself with some leisure time and began to invest it in creations of his own. Most of his talents were direct­ed toward the cult of an ideal—here, due to the theme of the show, projected through an anthropomorphic God. The whole of the de Young’s section dealt with this subject: Is God manlike, or Man godlike? What are the duties of one to the other? Who fails whom? God may feel that the man he created fails him, but man, too, must feel that the God he has created fails him, for through the ages he has modified the form many times, always in doubt as to how far he might identify with the God­-image without destroying himself.

Something like 7000 years of art were covered in this section, from ancient Mesopotamian clay figures to polished and mannered paintings of the 17th century. A tremendous span to try to illustrate with 145 pieces of art work, however well chosen they might be. In selecting the de Young made sacrifices, in some cases settling for a characteristic piece from a single culture. Generally, these were excel­lent of their type, but lacking the support of relative works they became token exhibits only, often with­out meaning. The first gallery was filled with Egyp­tian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and other Mediterranean antiquities. The finest thing among them was the large Spanish-Gothic Christ on the Cross (13th Century), lent by Henry Schaefer-Simmern. It was the most penetrating interpretation of the Glory of Man in the entire show, (and also of the debasement which makes glory possible).

The second gallery was devoted to Baroque and Mannerist painting reaching well into the 17th cen­tury, some of it, unfortunately, of second-rate qual­ity. Georges de la Tour’s moving St. Sebastian Nursed by St. Irene, a wonderful example of this artist’s masterful use of central lighting to drama­tize subject matter, and El Greco’s St. John the Baptist, from the de Young’s own collection, managed to lift the quality of some of the works around them. Yet even they could not relieve the blandness of the two panels on the subject of St. Sebastian, one by Caracciolo and the other by an unknown follower of Liberale de Verona.

The decision of the museums was against por­traiture, and the painting of Two Orientals from the school of Gentile Bellini, which approximates a portrait study, caused one to question the deci­sion. From their own permanent collections, the three San Francisco museums could have supplied enough top-rate portraits to more than reveal the glory, jest and riddle of man, and have done it in greater depth than was shown throughout the entire exhibition. While not entirely excluded, genre paint­ing, in which the condition of man is so eloquently stated, especially in 17th-century art, was kept to a minimum. The de Young’s sole representation, Mathieu Le Nain’s The Marriage Contract, was outstanding.

The rear section of the second gallery was devoted to a group of drawings and prints by such masters as Durer, Cranach, Wholgermuch, Veneziano, Schongauer and Rembrandt, borrowed largely from the Achenbach Foundation and the Crocker Art Gallery, both rich sources of graphic arts. But they seemed out of place in a show of such magnitude. The proximity of a group of small sculptures of no spe­cial significance robbed them of weight, and somehow the entire back section took on the atmosphere of a curio shop.

The third gallery, which contained the Oriental exhibits, was a paradoxical area. 1700 was sup­posed to be the terminal point at the de Young, and since, as noted, the division of time was an arbitrary one, it aroused no serious objections. Yet here were Indian miniatures and Japanese prints from the 18th and 19th centuries in the company of a magnificent terra cotta Haniwa Warrior from Japan’s Tumulus Period (3rd to 6th centuries, A.D.) and a delightful group of polychromed clay musi­cians from China’s Tang Period (700–750 A.D.). It could have been confusing, but such is the con­tinuity of Oriental art that it seemed to make sense. Somewhat shakier was the inclusion of Melanesian sculptures, African masks and figures, Polynesian, British Columbian and Alaskan works, chronologically rather contemporary, with pre-Columbian images from Peru and Mexico.

“Man: The Jest” was assigned to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. It traced the place of the figure in art during the 18th and 19th centuries, as represented from Tiepolo to Gauguin. It was a highly selective show, and from it one would assume that the art of these centuries had become totally secularized. Such was not the case, of course, although it is generally admitted that the 18th cen­tury gave the world little of lasting value in the way of religious painting. Its gay and lively art is fas­cinating but it leaves the viewer unrequited in that there is no sense of the sacred, the supernatural, the sublime. The artists treated both the Bible and the great myths of antiquity as though they were scenes from some charming opera. But no one can deny their enormous sense of the spectacular.

The Legion dealt mainly with French and Italian art, which, during the 18th century was much preoccupied with the theatre. The painters, many of whom would have made excellent producers of big spectacular plays, drew inspiration from it and had no compunction whatever about using stage perspective in their works. Tiepolo, particularly, was something of an 18th-century Max Reinhardt.

There was little penetration of the theme at the Legion, but it gave enough of a representation for one to follow the thread of art history with fewer breaks in continuity than did the vastly longer-ranged show at the de Young Museum. And it illustrated some interesting simultaneities, such as the return to antiquity, popularized by painters of entertain­ment as an aftermath of the archeological activities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the development of Romanticism which, by the end of the 18th cen­tury, was to sound the death-knell of that pseudo-­classicism which had spread throughout Europe to become an international expression.

The knowing viewer was apt to be unhappy with some of the Legion’s selections, even within the framework of the theme. When seeking to appraise the art of the 18 century, care must be taken to neither magnify nor belittle its achievements, and the general tone of the Legion’s show was belittling. Within its limitations, however, one did come to realize that, taken as a whole, 18th-century painting was characterized by an immense diversity. It was a century eminently blessed with peace and prosperity; one of frequent, informal gatherings for polite social intercourse among civilized beings. And those characteristics, to a large extent, are reflected in an art which apparently would do any­thing rather than offend. That is probably its great­est fault—the over-eagerness to please.

If such was the point the Legion wanted to make, it made it well, with Coypel’s The Rape of Europa, a spacious painting in the grandly baroque tradition, and de Troy’s The Evening Card Party, an intimate, playful scene in perfect rococo taste. Adding to the thesis were prime examples of Boucher, Fragonard, Lancret, Longhi and Pater, all influenced by the seemingly eternal Italian comedy. And by Watteau, who created a dream world of his own. Shown with them in the second gallery were two men who stood well apart—men who determined styles rather than followed them: Tiepolo and Goya. Triumph of Flora was an especially brilliant ex­ample of Tiepolo’s vividness and power, although A Maja and Two Toreros was a superficial work of Goya, obviously selected to carry out the theme of the show, a theme which, in the Legion’s hands, became Man: Player in the Human Comedy.

In the third gallery neo-classicism and romanticism came to grips in a tussle characterized by Dau­mier’s Nymphs Pursued by Satyrs, an unusual subject for this master, and radiant in its handling, and Vanderlyn’s Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos. One picture summed up this struggle as if it were made to order: Burne-Jones’ Rock of Doom, an odd mixture of Italian primitive painting and British Arthurian legend where a classic nude, chained to a rock, bade goodbye to her gallant knight. Composed with the blessings of Rossetti, an English painter of the “violet vapors” who was Burne-Jones’ mentor, its significance here was the influence of Rossetti—he set the behavior pattern of a whole generation of English women. David’s academic nude and the four paintings by Ingres did not communicate their importance, although in the latter’s Oedipus and the Sphinx his neo-classicism was at its best.

The fourth gallery was given over to the Impressionist and post-Impressionist works of the 19th century, a century in which the artist attempted a rationale about life. The works were of mixed quality. One noted with surprise the omission of van Gogh. The portrait as art was belatedly recognized in a huge study of Sarah Bernhardt by Dore. As art one could riddle the portrait with criticism, but as a document it was a revelation to those generations who know “the divine Sarah” by legend only. The young “Audrey Hepburn” who looked out of that canvas was far more provocative than all of Bou­cher’s sprawling O’Murphys, giving credence to the literature.

The American painters included in this section of the exhibition were selected to fit the theme, but it was abundantly clear that there was little of the Jest as it was known in Europe in the life of the frontiersman. The Evening Card Party and Bing­ham’s Raftsmen Playing Cards, with rifles handy, made an interesting commentary on man’s use of his leisure time.

––E. M. Polley