Walking into a major exhibit at the de Young, the easiest thing to do is to lock your eyes onto the works of the renowned masters. Who could resist Winslow Homer’s Saco Bay (1896), with its delicate balance of sunset pinks and the rocks on shore blackening in the coming dark? Or the gorgeous turmoil of a John Singer Sargent brush stroke? The amount of movement in Sargent’s The Sketchers (1914) suggests a life within every inanimate object, whether it be a blade of grass, a yellow umbrella, each and every leaf or the rustling branches of trees.
Upon entering the first salon of Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, you will suffer from the temptation to remain in a state of optical rapture, your gaze fixed on the show stoppers and prize winners, the names and paintings that remain in the history books. With some patience, as you work your way through the crowds, the less celebrated works of art will capture your attention too.
[jump] San Francisco’s world’s fair — the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) of 1915 — celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and the reconstruction of the city after the devastating effects of the 1906 earthquake. Jewel City gathers together more than two hundred works of art that were on display at the original exposition in 1915. Apart from marveling at the daunting task the curators set for themselves, it’s an arresting thought to imagine a Bay Area population admiring the same works of art a century ago. It’s easy to speculate on the ones that will make it back in 2115.
An odd bet to place would be on Giacomo Balla’s Disintegration x Speed (1913), one of his signature Futurist gouaches. Something mechanical is breaking down and/or breaking apart. If you’ve ever been in a car with a reckless Uber or cab driver, you’ll recognize the feeling right away. There is a larger implication: the breakdown of an ordered society into chaos. Was Balla right to imply an over-dependence on technology? Did he see into the future, anticipating what was to come
Of course, the wit of Cecilia Beaux’s Man with the Cat (1898) acts as a tonic to that Italian’s pessimism (to be fair he was, after all, about to stare World War I directly in the face). Beaux’s brother-in-law is the man with the cat in his lap, and an enormous mustache that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mission today. His expression seems to say, “I and the cat and my mustache are one.”
In this wide-ranging exhibition, the works of art on display are largely harmonious and complementary, dominated by a wall of influential Impressionists. Those paintings are lush and impressive but ultimately emotionally excessive. Several plein air paintings offered a return to a more recognizable and earthbound beauty in the adjacent “Art of the West” room. Clark Hobart’s The Blue Bay: Monterey (1915) and Bruce Nelson’s The Summer Sea (1914) look like places you’ve been to and will visit again. They embody the dream of every new Californian: to be able to live near that great expanse of the blue Pacific.
Before the PPIE opened on February 20, 1915, there was a contest for artists to create an image for the official poster of the exposition. Perham Wilhelm Nahl (1869-1935) was the artist with the winning entry The Thirteenth Labor of Hercules. It shows a naked, muscled man pushing apart the Culebra Cut in Panama that opened up the path from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as the Jewel City shines brightly in the distance. Born and raised in San Francisco, Nahl also died here. He was hit by a car in 1935. Disintegration x Speed: Giacomo Balla must have been on to something. Odds are that the Futurists, aptly named, will make the exhibition cut in 2115.
Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, through Jan.10, 2016
at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, 415-750-3600.