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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The De Young Museum, San Francisco

The present-day de Young Museum. Thanks to San Francisco's penchant for
destructive earthquakes, the museum is not architecturally troubled with
stylistic conflicts as are so many such art temples.
Some people, when they go on vacation, go "bar-hopping." This spring, to hear my wife tell it, I went "museum-hopping" all over the western United States. I just returned a few days ago from a 42-day, chauffeur-driven jaunt from Ohio, down through Tennessee, westward to Phoenix, on to L.A., up the breathtaking Pacific Coast highway to San Francisco and Seattle, then back through the Mt. Rushmore Black Hills of South Dakota and the Taliesin green hills of Wisconsin, culminating in a day at the Art Institute of Chicago. There were also side trips to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. The chauffeur was my wife (she doesn't like my driving). In all, we covered about 8,500 miles. The weather for the entire trip was near perfect; the only storm we encountered being during the last thirty miles as we neared home. The museum hopping included Elvis's Graceland, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Getty Museum (also in L.A.), and Chicago's Art Institute. The biggest surprise, however, came in San Francisco--the de Young Museum, presiding over Golden Gate Park.

The $75,000 original Egyptian-style
museum circa 1895
(complete with its own pyramid).
Don't ask my wife what she thinks of driving in San Francisco. Even with a Tom-Tom GPS unit (we nicknamed it "Tommy"), and myself as an experienced big-city navigator, she swore (boy, did she ever) she'd never again drive near the place. Our hotel was on Lombard Street, if that tells you anything (though not the zig-zaggy part). As for myself, I rather liked the city. I rather liked the touristy waterfront, the stair-stepping streets, the quaint cable-cars, the Painted Ladies (a row of colorful, nearly identical Victorian houses), and of course Golden Gate Park. By the way, if you go looking for the de Young, it's in the part of the park situated in the residential area, not (as logic would suggest) the area near the bridge.

This 1930s postcard view bears witness to the fact that the de Young once had wings, once had extensive ornamentation, and (for better or worse) once had earthquakes.
Over time, the latter took care of the other two features.

M.H. de Young, publisher of what later
became the San Francisco Chronicle.
The de Young Museum (as with several other 19th-century art institutions) began as an outgrowth of a "world's fair" exposition, in this case the city's 1894 Mid-Winter Exposition, a pale imitation of Chicago's colossal World's Colombian Exposition the year before. The fair affair made a profit of $75,000 which was spent building an Egyptian styled art museum to house some 6,000 pieces of leftover art and memorabilia from the Mid-Winter extravaganza, plus art donations from prosperous area families. The whole effort was driven by the wealthy newspaper publisher, M.H. de Young, for whom the museum later came to be named. Then came the disastrous 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. And, while the museum didn't exactly fall down, and was spared the ravages of the ensuing firestorm, it was severely damaged, which also served as reason enough to enlarge the structure. Additional wings followed in 1917 and 1926 (without the impetus of further earthquakes). Shortly thereafter, the original structure was condemned as unsafe. It came to be replaced in 1931. By 1949, the city's salty sea air had so damaged the iron supports that all ornamentation had to be stripped away.

Come for the art, stay for the view, and hope the tectonic plates don't become restless.
The de Young Tower
Even so, virtually none of the 20th century museum exists today (except for a couple sphinxes, some palm trees, and a meditative pool). In 1989, there came the Loma Prieta earthquake which rang the death knell for the troubled, Depression Era building. It had to be demolished. The architects Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, and the firm of Fong & Chan were called upon to design an "earthquake proof" structure. Of course, such an edifice is likely impossible, but a complex series of plates mounted on ball bearings allows the copper-clad structure to, in effect, roll with mother nature's punches (up to three feet). From the outside, the museum seems understated, except for one feature, a twisting 144-ft. tower housing the education department with an observation deck on the top floor. Larger on top than at its base, the precarious-looking construction appears anything but earthquake proof.
The de Young is modest in size, yet spacious in scale, functional in design,
and simple in appearance. Future museums would do well to emulate it.
I've often wondered, when architects enter a competition involving the design of an art museum, why they think it necessary for their structure to compete for attention with the art it is to house. Any number of museum architects have been guilty of this aesthetic transgression (though some more than others). However, except for the aforementioned tower doodad, the de Young designers did not succumb to such temptation. Inside and out, the de Young seems minimal. It's attractive, at times breathtaking in its simplicity, but it's not in any danger of overshadowing its art. The gift shop occupies two levels, the ever-present dining facilities are unobtrusive, there's even an extremely convenient underground parking garage, ever so important in a city not at all hospitable to the automobile (as my wife would quickly attest).

Recreation, 1857, Jerome Thompson. Tennis, anyone?
Peaceable Kingdom, 1848, Edward Hicks
(one of sixty nearly identical versions)
The art? Well, the de Young is no LACMA, no Getty, and certainly can't hold a candle to Chicago's lakefront art complex. Moreover, it doesn't try to. The collection is suitably broad but not deep, vested with a smattering of painting and sculpture from all eras, with special attention paid to native Californians. That's as it should be. I was not surprised to find works by Diebenkorn, Chihuly, and Thiebaud, but I was startled to see Peaceable Kingdom (left) by Edward Hicks, until I read that the de Young's painting was one of sixty churned out by the self-taught, early American artist. Western landscape artists such as Bierstadt, Remington, and Moran are well-represented. Peale (Rembrandt), Stuart, and Sargent make cameo appearances, as do the Social Realist, Henri, Shinn, and Bellows. Californians love Impressionism, especially the American brand, as seen in the work of Glackens, Prendergast, Chase, Cassatt, and Hassam. Yet, amid such a stellar cast it was often the work of unknown (to me) artists which I found most fascinating, such as Jerome Thompson's 1857 Recreation (above). My, how times have changed.

The de Young at night.


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