The Panama Pacific International Exhibition, San Francisco, 1915

Just nine short years after the devastatingly destructive 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, the citizens of San Francisco transformed the marshy wetlands of what is now the city’s prestigious Marina district, which had then been serving as a post-earthquake refugee camp, into the spectacular 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), a world’s fair to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal. The feat was nothing short of miraculous.

The event featured 11 exhibition palaces over 635 acres, with 21 countries represented (in addition to national and more local representation). Central to the efforts of the fair was the showcasing of art. PPIE boasted one of the largest art exhibitions ever assembled in the United States: on show in the Bernard Maybeck–designed Palace of Fine Arts and an accompanying Annex were over 11,000 works of art (11,403, to be exact)—paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs, all beautifully presented, as was discovered by the curatorial staff at the de Young when researching their upcoming exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the PPIE. “We were excited to discover several previously unknown installation views of the Palace of Fine Arts,” says James A. Ganz, the de Young show’s curator. “There has always been an assumption that the Palace was a jumbled mess, but these photographs by Gabriel Moulin reveal beautifully installed galleries.”

Additionally, there were numerous murals and 1,500 sculptures commissioned by artists from around the world, as well as artwork that was part of other exhibitions in the fair. The total number of artworks at PPIE is estimated to be around 20,000. To help make sense of this overwhelming display, there was a strong art educational component, complete with docent tours. Unsurprisingly, there was a strong emphasis on American art, but also ample offerings from Europe, which was a major accomplishment given that, during the art acquisition phase, WWI broke out, making selection and shipping of the works enormously difficult. (Although in at least one case, the fair benefitted: 39 German paintings that had been shown in Pennsylvania and were scheduled to be returned didn’t make it back, due to the international turmoil, and ended up at the fair).

There was an emphasis in the show on Impressionism, but also examples of Austrian Expressionism, Hungarian modernism, and Italian Futurism; artists from Finland, France, and Italy, among other countries, were represented, some well-known, other not. For a majority of Bay Area residents (and those on the West Coast in general), it was their first time seeing not just what was happening artistically in Europe, but elsewhere in the United States.

In all, nearly 19 million people passed through the fair and roughly half of them visited the Palace of Fine Arts, which still stands today (the other structures were destroyed). From an art and culture perspective, PPIE had such impact that Ganz has dubbed it the “Great Artquake of San Francisco.” Tremors from this quake were felt long after the fair—and are still reverberating. The French Pavilion was the inspiration behind Alma Speckels’ museum, the Legion of Honor. The Palace of Fine Arts was turned into a museum. While that museum did close in 1924, the momentum of it (albeit not continuous) would eventually result in SFMOMA. The fine art component of what would become the Oakland Museum of California (a merger of three previously independent institutions) was launched. Many pieces from the fair found their way to Memorial Museum (now the de Young), which, prior to 1915, had been the only significant art museum in the city.

PPIE had an effect on artists as well, impacting the “Society of Six,” a group of innovative Oakland-based painters that emerged in 1917. Their works can be traced to the beginning of modernism in Northern California and would go on to influence, directly or indirectly, such artists as Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and other members of the Bay Area figurative movement. Art buyers took advantage of the offerings as well: almost 1,600 pieces found homes outside the fair, with roughly 1,000 works staying in California, many of them ending up in public institutions.

To celebrate the centennial of the PPIE, numerous events and exhibitions are and will be taking place in the Bay Area throughout 2015, into 2016 (see ppie100.org), serving to demonstrate the monumentality of the fair and its enormous effect on the city. The California Historical Society is offering two exhibitions—at its downtown headquarters and at the Palace of Fine Arts—that provide an in-depth look into all aspects of the fair, including architecture and design.

Highlighting the fair’s fine art component is the highly anticipated de Young show “Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition” (opening October 17 and running through January 10, 2016). The show will feature over 200 works, most of which were shown at PPIE. Of particular note is the massive amount of research that went into creating the exhibition, the fruits of which are laid out in a thorough, copiously illustrated 400-page catalogue. “Until now, a clear understanding of the art historical significance of the PPIE has been obscured by its unwieldy scale… as well as the relative dearth of visual evidence of what was exhibited,” Ganz notes. “The contemporary catalogues and guidebooks of paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs were sparsely illustrated, and few gallery interiors were photographed. The curatorial team spent several years scouring archival sources and the primary and secondary literature, as well as reaching out to auction houses, museums, and private collectors with the goal of identifying a critical mass of the works shown in 1915 to arrive at a considered and coherent selection for this restaging.”

By design, the selection of art will mirror the eclectic gathering featured at PPIE: “From the beginning I felt it was important that we should not merely assemble a group of masterpieces that have clearly stood the test of time,” Ganz states, “but that we ought to represent some of the prevailing artistic currents that include works of art by many figures who will be unfamiliar to today’s museumgoers. The curatorial challenge is to create a lucid and balanced exhibition that is true to the original experience of fairgoers in 1915. To that end, two-thirds of our show is devoted to American art, and one-third to the French Section and to the International Section.”

Of the many exceptional works that will be on show, Ganz points to a few highlights, including Umberto Boccioni’s Matter (1912), which, he states, “is a milestone of Italian Futurism.” Ganz also singles out Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Symposium (The Problem) and Mäntykoski Waterfall: “I am especially pleased to be bringing these seminal works by this important Finnish painter back to San Francisco,” Ganz says. Among other artists whose work will be on view are American artists Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler, and Thomas Eakins, and Europeans Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Oskar Kokoschka.

“Jewel City” will also show two large murals; these are of particular note because, “as original commissions for the PPIE,” says Ganz, “they are especially evocative of the exposition and the experience of fairgoers in 1915.” And finally, there will be documentation of the fair, including paintings and photographs. Among them is a photograph of the Palace of Fine Arts by then 13-year-old Ansel Adams (who skipped school for a year to regularly attend the fair). Together, these shows offer a unique opportunity to step back in time and experience the tremendous impact this one (albeit sprawling) event had on the San Francisco of 100 years ago, and today.

"Bigger Trees Nearer Warter," winter 2008, oil on 9 canvases (36" x 48" each), 108" x 144"

“Bigger Trees Nearer Warter,” winter 2008, oil on 9 canvases (36″ x 48″ each), 108″ x 144″

“David Hockney really has been one of the most influential British artists of his generation,” says Richard Benefield, deputy director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the umbrella organization for the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor). “In fact, he is arguably one of the most influential artists of his generation, period, because, even though he’s continued to work in a figurative style, he’s been open to exploring every possible technology that’s come his way.” Hockney is also, like the artist he most cherishes, Picasso, incredibly prolific. For these reasons, the de Young’s “David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition” (October 26, 2013 – January 20, 2014), which covers Hockney’s career over the past decade (2002 to the present), will be the museum’s largest show ever. It features over 300 works (some of which were drying even as the final show list was being created), sprawling out over 18,000 square feet, 12,000 of that being the museum’s regular temporary exhibition space and the final 4,000 in four upstairs galleries.

Born in Bradford, United Kingdom, in 1937, Hockney, who splits his time between the countryside of his native England and Los Angeles, began garnering an increasing attention for his work in the late 1950s. At that time, as Benefield–who is also co-curator of the exhibition, with Gregory Evans–notes, the work was rather intellectual and verged on abstract. However, Hockney’s art has always maintained a connection to the figurative and has always exhibited the artist’s talent for drawing, an activity he’s pursued since childhood. Indeed, at the foundation of all his work, even the artist himself claims, is drawing and line.

As Sarah Howgate, contemporary curator of London’s National Portrait Gallery, notes in one of the catalog essays for the exhibition, “Hockney has always made exquisite line drawings; he is widely recognized as one of the greatest draftsmen of the second half of the twentieth century.”

As much as Hockney is revered for his talent in the most traditional of art mediums and pursuits–in addition to drawing, Hockney works in oils on canvas, as well as acrylics and, new for this exhibition, watercolor–he also fully embraces whatever new technology he can get his hands on. Additionally, he has long had a penchant for creating multiples, one interest that links him to the Pop art scene in which many have placed him, albeit that remains a sticking point for some. (Benefield, for instance, finds this comparison erroneous: “I don’t think he ever was a Pop artist,” Benefield states. “He just happened to come to prominence during the period of Pop Art, and he was very friendly with a number of Pop artists.”)

To these ends, Hockney created lithographs in the 1960s and 1970s. “He loved making prints,” notes Benefield, “because that was a way to disseminate his pictures to a larger audience.” From there he moved on to faxing drawings, then to creating high-quality printouts on a color photocopier, employing each technology when it was new. He’s also worked with photography and in Photoshop and now continually works with iPhones, iPads, and digital cameras–the latter three featuring prominently in this show (and he regularly sends his digital sketches to friends immediately upon completion); in fact, he’s replaced his ever-present sketchbook with an iPhone. But then, Benefield points out, he always returns to drawing and painting.

"Woldgate Woods, 30 March–21 April," oil on 6 canvases (36" x 48" each), 72" x 144"

“Woldgate Woods, 30 March–21 April,” oil on 6 canvases (36″ x 48″ each), 72″ x 144″

Hockney also sticks with tradition when it comes to the genres he focuses on; he only partakes of the three most historical art genre: still life, landscape, and portraiture. The latter two being what this current exhibition features, with equal weight given to both. However, to Hockney, all of his work has a figurative quality, even when figures are absent.

Fittingly, this exhibition covers a large range of mediums: charcoal on paper, multi-camera films, iPhone and iPad drawings (both printed out and on-screen), oil on canvas, acrylic on canvas, watercolor, and more. Generally, the exhibition is grouped by subject matter and medium: it begins with portraits, moves into plein-air landscapes, then film, and so on. “The exhibition will express his fluidity, how he flows easily between mediums,” explains Krista Brugnara, the director of exhibitions for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. And that is because of Hockney’s ability to make each of his chosen modes of expression his own. To that point, Benefield says, “I never like to use the word experiment with Hockney because there never really is an experiment; he sort of goes through a period of, take the iPad for instance, he’s figuring out what all he’s able to do with it, and then he just all of a sudden has mastered it, and he’s creating phenomenal work on itÉ He picks it up, learns how to use it, masters it, and then starts making art with it.”

In addition to the exhibition featuring numerous mediums and a huge amount of work, another standout feature is that several of the works presented are the largest Hockney has ever made: in several instances, a single piece takes up an entire gallery. For example, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty Eleven), Version 3, 2011Ð2013, which comprises 32 oil on canvas paintings and 12 iPad drawings each printed on 4 sheets of paper; Brugnara notes that the viewer “will be surrounded by what that [the arrival of spring] means.” In another gallery there will be playing four 18-camera films–what Hockney calls his cubist films–one on each wall, of the same location in Hockney’s home area of Woldgate Woods. Each wall features a different season, with each of the 18 cameras providing a slightly different perspective of the landscape: the viewer is thus engulfed in the full spectrum of a year. Notably, the viewer being immersed is part of the piece, thus making these large works implicitly figurative.

In the upstairs galleries, viewers will experience some of Hockney’s most recent works as well as a few older pieces, which provide context for the rest of the exhibition. Being shown for the first time is The Great Wall, a huge (72 feet long and eight feet high) presentation of chronologically and geographically ordered images presenting the history of European portraiture from 1200 to 1900. The work is the result of exhaustive research into the subject, leading up to Hockney’s somewhat controversial book “Secret Knowledge,” which concludes that the Old Masters used optical devices to map their works. Some of Hockney’s photo collages will also be on view, these relating to the cubist films and the multi-canvas landscapes, all being studies in perspective.

So, with an exhibition so enormous, what’s the best approach for the viewer? “I think that people have to come to the exhibition with an open mind and clear their heads of what they remember of Hockney as swimming pool paintingsÉ and let themselves be surprised.” Benefield says. But, he adds, “Prepare to be a little overwhelmed.” He continues, “There’s so much to see in all of this work, the generosity of the artist himself just putting it all out there for you to take it in.” Perhaps the greatest gift Hockney is presenting, again and again, is providing us with a new way of seeing: from different angles, at different times, in different forms. As amply evidenced in this vast exhibition, he’s abundantly offering the opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Gustave Caillebotte's "The Floor Scrapers"

Sit with this for a moment: beginning this late spring through January 2011, over two hundred iconic French Impressionist, Postimpressionist, Realist, and Naturalist paintings will be on show at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. And these works will never be seen again in such quantity outside of their home, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Opening May 22 (and running through September 6) is “Birth of Impressionism,” which will feature about half the works and focus on Paris around 1874, when the first exhibition of Impressionist paintings took place. “There was a preponderance of different styles,” says  Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco John Buchanan, “all at once and all in one city.”
Almost immediately following (opening September 25 and running through January 18, 2011) is the exhibition “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond,” featuring Postimpression-ist work by the greatest masters of the genre. The de Young is the only venue in the world to get both shows.
How’d we get so lucky? It’s all about passion and good relationships. But first some background. The Musée d’Orsay is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of nineteenth century French art, including Impressionist and Postimpressionist work, by design. Housed in what was originally a train station (note: the architect who transformed it into the museum, the renowned Gae Aulenti, is also responsible for San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum), created in 1900 for the Paris International Exhibition, the museum was launched in 1986. Its mission is to highlight Western art from 1848 to 1914. Its collection was formed by consolidating the best pieces from this period from the Louvre, Jeu de Paume, and the Modern Art Museum in Paris, as well as generous gifts from private parties. Many of the works coming to San Francisco were originally in the collection of Gustave Caillebotte; a painter himself (his stunning painting The Floor Scrapers will be on show in the first exhibition), he was also a man of great financial means. This allowed him to be an early collector of work by fellow artists. Interestingly as well, several paintings are making a return, having also been shown in San Francisco at the Panama Pacific exhibition of 1915.
In anticipation of its twenty-fifth anniversary next year, the d’Orsay is undergoing a major refurbishment. “The current director, Guy Cogeval, is a professional and personal friend of mine,” says Buchanan. “He asked if I wanted to make an exhibition with him.” Cogeval and Buchanan—who has a great love of nineteenth century French art and culture—met on several occasions to plan the show: two exhibitions emerged. And to that, Buchanan simply said: “I think we should do both.”
Viewers can anticipate what amounts to the rare experience of art history books come to life. The first exhibition highlights works by over forty artists, including such visionary masters as Edgar Degas, Frederic Bazille, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Gustav Courbet. Highlights include: Degas’s The Dancing Lesson (1873–1876) and Racehorses Before the Stands (1866–1868), Monet’s Saint-Lazare Station (1877) and Rue Montorquei, Paris (1878), and Pierre Puvi de Chavannes’s Young Girls on the Edge of the Sea (1879), among so many others. Buchanan points out that he is particularly excited about the numerous fine Manets that will be here—there will be eleven, ranging from 1865 to 1882. “He was a great Naturalist,” Buchanan says, “yet he was close friends with the Impressionists. His work was influenced by seventeenth century Spanish paintings. He was the first truly modern artist.” Particularly, Buchanan singles out The Fife Player (1866). “We make direct contact with a real human being,” he says of the painting’s subject. “He’s gazing directly at us.” Another greatly anticipated work is what many of us know as “Whistler’s Mother,” American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black, no. 1 (1871). “It shows Realist and Naturalist tendencies,” Buchanan says. “And the influence of Japanese art.”
Running concurrent to “Birth of Impressionism” is “Impressionist Paris: City of Light,” at the de Young’s sister venue, the Legion of Honor (June 5 through September 26). Featuring over 180 prints, photographs, paintings, and books, it will add further context to the main exhibition.
Following, the “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond” exhibition features 120 works focusing on late Impressionist masterpieces, as well as Pointillist paintings by such masters as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Some of what we can look forward to: Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhone (1888), Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ (1889) by Paul Gauguin, and Seurat’s The Circus (1891).
“This is a huge moment for those of us who love France and French art,” Buchanan concludes. “It’s like stepping into an art history book of late nineteenth century France.”