IN PRAISE OF OLDER MUSEUMS BY THE BAY
They say the multitudes of museum buildings going up in the world are secularized cathedrals for modern society. If these new edifices with their flashy architecture, restaurants, boutique shops and crowd-pleasing exhibitions are cathedrals, then what were those quiet, empty places we used to stroll quite alone for hours of aesthetic refreshment? They must have been monasteries, cloisters that were once royal palaces abandoned by fleeing aristocrats who left their treasures behind for the edification of the wandering pilgrim.
San Francisco is a modern city visited by all the thrills and ills attendant upon that estate, but somehow its museums have retained some of that wonderful musty character that made them our institutional grandparents when we were kids.
Sure, its museums do splashy special exhibitions. Before the recent opening of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art and the County Museum of Arts’ new modern wing, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the most active modern museum on the West Coast. Now that its director, Henry Hopkins, has left to lead Frederick Weisman’s unbuilt private museum, SFMMA’s future is not quite clear. They say the trustees are casting about for a new building.
Any sensible person has to admit that SFMMA needs more space, but there is a distinct architectural charm to its location in the neo-classical veteran’s building across from the very nice knock-off of Les Invalides that is City Hall. SFMMA is more than a little cramped, but where else do you get a museum in a elevator operated by a real person? Even fancy New York hotels rarely have elevator operators anymore. And once in the museum, there is that handsome sculpture pavilion with its reassuring marzipan classical columns and excellent modern skylights.
Every red-blooded young American has to be for progress, but San Francisco relies on the kindness of strangers and a lot of them regard the place as nostalgia city. They expect Clark Gable and Jeannete MacDonald to emerge from earthquake rubble every morning wearing a beaver hat and a feather boa and singing something stirring about the Golden Gate.
Well, it is unlikely that anybody is going to mess very much with the exquisite Oriental character of the Asian Art Museum or the wind-swept Romanticism of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. That place is one of the great museum visits before you even get to the collections. The stately building and its heroic sculpture frame against the pines and the bay, and when the fog rolls in you feel like Baudelaire swathed in a cape. It is terrific the way it is.
But San Francisco is changing. In the last couple of years all three major museum directors have retired or been replaced. Jack Lane took over for Hopkins at SFMMA, before that AAM director Rene D’Argence was replaced by Rand Castile, and just last week Harry S. Parker from the Dallas Museum was named to head the combined M.H. de Young Memorial and Legion of Honor. Ian White, who directed the museums with quiet effectiveness for some 20 years, is retiring.
No one can be sure what all these changes will bring, but the drift seems to be toward putting the showplaces more in line with the current general trend to bigger, slicker and more popular. The De Young and Legion of Honor--collectively called the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco--have, for example, launched a $35-million capital campaign to alleviate the pressure on the admittedly strapped museums.
Well, good luck. Even people who like a little patina on their museums do not want it to turn to mildew. In the meantime, the De Young honors White with an exhibition called “The Directors Choice” through Sept. 13.
It is an agreeably understated affair that is both intrinsically interesting and instructive as to the nature of the FAMSF. The thing one likes about them is that old-fashioned museum satisfaction of going back and finding favorite pieces where you left them last week, or last year. There are those boffo small Rodins right there at the Legion of Honor and that terrific marble head of Cosimo I di Medici at the De Young. It is from Benvenuto Cellini’s workshop and not by his hand, but who cares?
The down side of such stability is an impression that the museums are somewhat fallow. “Director’s Choice” proves that is not altogether the case. Under White, the museum has been quietly collecting away, and 85 pieces prove it has done so with excellent taste and catholicity.
Normally, this is the sort of exhibition that drives critics to apoplexy. It lurches from Old Master paintings to modern costumes, from primitive art to refined bibelots, from traditional furniture to contemporary drawing.
Normally, the mind founders before finding leitmotifs in such a strew, but here they are clearly the virtues of quality and generousity. There is a kind of poignancy about it all, because another thing they say of the new museums is that they will tend to be private like the Di Menil Museum opening this week down in Houston, or specialized like MOCA or, say, Richard Meier’s Decorative Arts Museum in Frankfurt.
It may well be that the encyclopedic general history of art museums will soon reach zero-proliferation. We have to value the survivors of this breed of lovable Clysdales for their optimism in thinking Noah can still get all of civilization into one ark, as well as for the practical opportunity to cross-reference multiple styles and cultures.
Certainly the best group of works here are such American paintings as John Singleton Copley’s wedding portrait of Mrs. Daniel Sargent, Mary Cassatt’s touching portrait of her mother, or Thomas Anshutz’s unique offbeat masterpiece, “Ironworkers, Noon.”
They are independently excellent, but both their kinship and individuality are dramatized set in comparison to Old Master painting. Glance over at an operatic Italian Baroque “St. John” and our practicality is clearer. Glance at Franz Pourbus’ almost feverishly rigorous portrait of a woman and our informality lounges forth.
Walk over to the well-selected primitive section and the Euro-American cultural axis fuses into a single thing. Mosey into the drawing section and Gauguin reminds us of the deep paradox that modern art would have been impossible without ancient and primitive art.
In a self-centered and myopic world, it’s great to be reminded of tattered beliefs in the Big Picture.