San Francisco

San Francisco’s Summer Season

Drawings from various eras provided the dominant theme of featured museum exhibitions throughout the San Francisco Bay Area during the summer season, with the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and the University of California’s Berkeley campus concurrently vying for the spotlight in presenting extensive major exhibitions of Old Master Drawings, while the summer schedule at the San Francisco Museum of Art seemed to follow suit in a preponderance of shows dealing with modern graphic techniques, as well as with contemporary extensions and revivals of historic master draftsmanship traditions and ranging in scope from such local artists as Arthur Okamura and Matt Glavin to the distinctive still life drawings of the eminent Italian, Georgia Morandi (1890–1964) and the large scale figurative and fantasmogoric drawings of the contemporary American Hyman Bloom.

The University of California’s Centennial Year was commemorated at the Berkeley campus by an intensive program of outstanding artistic and cultural events, included in which was the University Art Museum’s exhibition of Master Drawings from California Collections. Of the 81 drawings comprising this exhibition, 28—just one more than a third of the exhibition’s entire inventory—were selected from the drawing collection of the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery of Sacramento, in turn preponderantly derived from the nucleus of over 1000 master drawings acquired by Edwin Crocker (1818–1875) during the latter part of his life, and 18 drawings were from the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts instituted by the late Moore S. Achenbach (1878–1963). Thus the combined selections from the Crocker and Achenbach collections accounted for 46 drawings, while the remaining 35 were borrowed from a miscellany of 10 other public and private California collections.

It is not surprising, therefore, that this show tended to reflect that apparent enthusiasm for the Renaissance—predominantly as relating to Italy and secondarily as relating to Germany and the Germanic Low Countries—which characterized the art-collecting affectations of most of the founders and scions of American fortunes, in the West as well as in the East born during the 19th century. Where the exhibition departed from Italy and/or the Renaissance into representing other countries and centuries, the emphasis was on those academically celebrated names that most ordinarily informed persons would immediately associate with reputations for distinctive skill or style in draftsmanship, such as Watteau, Fragonard, Fuseli and Rowlandson. (The inclusion of Fuseli made remarkable the omission of Blake, since California may boast of an exceptional collection of Blake drawings in the Huntington Library.)

A heavy concentration of conventional iconographic and religious portrayals from the Renaissance, coupled with a prevalence of sombre subject matter throughout (the chosen Fuseli was The Passing of the Angel of Death, while Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s Pulcinella Series was represented by Pulcinella’s Last Illness and Pulcinella Presides at a Hanging) imparted to the show an atmosphere of pious monumentality, ponderous erudition and self-consciously decorous ultra-refinement; in short, it was everything that the most humorless Victorians epitomized in the word “edifying.”

The Renaissance, it should be remembered, was a many-faceted era, as prolific and precocious in its artistic expressions of the secular, the jocund, the cynical and the carnally hedonistic and bacchanalian, as in its ecclesiastical concerns, and it is therefore tempting to speculate on how much the overall tone of the exhibition may merely have reflected rather probable puritanical predispositions operative in the policies of the original collectors, and how much it may have been due to similar biases operative in what the exhibition’s organizers deemed appropriate for the occasion. Certainly for an officially proclaimed “commemorative exhibition” honoring a major university of the American West Coast—a region reputedly inheriting a progressive “frontier tradition”—the choice of thesis and material seemed a trifle stuffy and even a little trite in its adherence to the most conventional stereotypes of academic “monumentalism,” proclaiming the celebrated event, as it were, a solemn occasion for reflection upon the augustly antiquarian art collecting of a hallowed antecedent generation of the Establishment.

Furthermore, there was nothing of importance or uniqueness about this particular assortment of master drawings: each of them was in theme and style fairly typical of its author, and the entire show could have been matched many times over, name for name and category for category, from any of a number of outstanding collections elsewhere in the country, so that it seemed merely devoted to the somewhat pretentious business of proving that the “pioneers” of West Coast art collecting went to the same markets, bought the same names and at least by emulation embraced the same canons of taste as did their eastern prototypes, a circumstance which Mr. Tom L. Freudenheim in his preface to the exhibition’s sumptuous catalog seems rather patronizingly constrained to equate with “sophisticated connoisseurship.”

It should be noted that the University’s Music Department, as its contributions to the centennial festivities, presented a magnificently staged, costumed and performed American premiere revival of the obscure, but thoroughly ingratiating Venetian Baroque comic opera L’Erismena by Pier Francesco Cavalli (1602–1676) and two programs of works by the world’s undisputed foremost surviving composer born during the last quarter of the 19th century, Igor Stravinsky, long a resident of California. It did not, for example, stage a series of programs devoted to a war-horse repertory of chamberworks by the “monumental” names of the Baroque, Rococo, and early Romantic periods—a procedure which would have been quite analogous to the University Art Museum’s Master Drawing show.)

At any rate, the exhibition was not without instructive merit, if only because the artists represented in it for the most part earned their universal and enduring fame. No matter how many pictures of the same category one may have already seen, a small rural scene by Breughel, or yet another preliminary sketch for an Annunciation, a Descent, a Crucifixion, or a Pieta by Beccafumi, Giambattista Tiepolo or by some anonymous Germanic master; a study for a Hand or a quickly jotted landscape by Anabile Carracci; a Head by Rubens; an allegory, mythological or historical scene in the Rococo “classical” manner by Fragonard; an elegantly delineated vista of architectural ruins by Guardi; a fantasy in the macabre manneristic Romanticism of Fuseli; or a genre piece in the detailed precision of Meissonier or in the spirited and relaxed gusto of Rowlandson or Wilkes, is always, each in its own way, rewarding of contemplation.

Somewhat more engaging, however, was the exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor of 160 drawings and watercolors recently acquired from Georges De Batz of San Francisco by the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Most of the items in the De Batz inventory date from between the beginning of the 18th century and the end of the 19th century, with a small scattering from the 17th and early 20th centuries. At a time when most exhibited collections bear the stamp of institutional or academic organization this collection is refreshingly personal, clearly having evolved from the sort of collecting process which makes no attempt to be erudite, comprehensive or systematic in terms of period, style, region, or of any critical or art-historical thesis, but which is motivated by an almost casual, spontaneous fascination with the things acquired and informed more by predilection than by policy or purpose.

The overall level of sophistication and appreciative discernment of graphic skill, nuance and imagination realized in this extraordinary accumulation of drawings and watercolors is very high, although, as is inevitable in such personal collections—and indeed a part of their charm—there are those incongruities which seem to reflect occasional choices more whimsical than others, or perhaps purely impulsive to a mood, a moment, or a caprice of private sentiment and association. However, within a surprising diversity of themes and styles there is that elusive “subjective” consistency determined by the temperament and modes of intuition of the collector and imparting a distinctive mood-spectrum and character to the collection as a whole. In marked contrast to the solemnity of the University Art Museum’s Master Drawing show, the pervasive atmosphere of the De Batz collection is one of Gallic urbanity and wit and a lively and cheerful cosmopolitanism. There is an absence of religious and tragic-heroic themes in favor of landscapes, portraits, figure studies, animal studies, still lifes, satirical genre sketches and pictures of literary or anecdotal interest for their subject matter.

Some comprehension of the De Batz collection’s range and tone is perhaps best communicated by briefly tallying a very small selection of its predominant array of landscapes representing many periods and regional styles and including such gems as Dutch Scene in chalk and wash by Jacob van Ruysdael; pencil sketches of the Pontine Swamps and of the Roman Campagna by Joseph M. W. Turner; a charming bit of 18th-century French Chinoiserie entitled The Garden Pavilion in red chalk by Jean Honoré Fragonard; a classical landscape in bistre pen and wash by Gaspard Dughet; a view of Old Houses in Dieppe by Louis Adolphe Hervier in ink and watercolor; a watercolor of Villas in Rome by Sir Muirhead Bone; a Paris street scene in watercolor by the American Frank Boggs and Boats on a Beach, a watercolor by the Englishman Peter de Wint. Pictures of particular anecdotal interest included a red chalk sketch of the composer George Frederick Handel with his favorite singer Lisetta Du Pare by Joseph Highmore; a view of the Imperial Palace in Peking, a documentary rendition in watercolor by the 18th-century Jesuit missionary to China, Father Jean Denis Attiret, and a group of pencil and watercolor thumbnail sketches on a single sheet of figures in civilian and military costumes of the American Civil War attributed to Winslow Homer.

Perhaps the most exquisite and exhilarating single drawing in the entire exhibition was a classically elegant reclining nude in red chalk by Francois Boucher. Boucher’s superb mastery of the academic nude study is somehow more truly refined and poignantly incisive in its draftsmanship than in the varnished roseate pastiche of his palette as a decorative painter.

In conclusion it is worth noting that, like the UC commemorative exhibition of master drawings, the De Batz collection contains two of the Pulcinella Series by the younger Tiepolo, but—again evidencing the contrast of mood between these concurrent Bay Area drawing exhibitions—the De Batz selections depict Pulcinella’s participation in a traditional Italian street dance (simply entitled Tarantella after the name of the dance) and Pulcinella’s Children Begging Sweets.

Palmer D. French