An old knock on the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach as its parade of Old Masters paintings with live actors was usually staged was “Yeah, that’s nice--but when will they do Picasso’s ‘Guernica’?”
Surprise of surprises, this year’s edition comes pretty darned close.
It’s not “Guernica,” the innovative Spanish Cubist’s portrayal of the chaos of war, but “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” his 1907 Cubist portrait of a group of prostitutes that helped usher in everything that came to be known as contemporary art.
Even attempting a nonfigurative work like this--much less pulling it off as well as they have with clever use of African-influenced masks and twisted body gear for the models--indicates how radically this year’s pageant has broken from its 67-year tradition. And who’d ever have expected the word “radical” to be uttered in connection with this historically tacky Orange County event?
It’s an ambitious effort--though it’s not carried out through the entire 2 1/2-hour show--to relay the development of the art of the last 100 years. Hence the title “The 20th Century--Ten Decades of Art.”
The switch flick that turns on banks of lights flanking the Irvine Bowl’s stage opens the program, as narrator Skip Conover touches on the broad effects of the advent of artificial illumination a century ago.
The first image after the orchestral overture is that of a dancer who flutters around the stage portraying Loie Fuller, the influential American performer who used light and fabric in innovative ways that affected visual artists at the turn of the century.
The pageant proceeds roughly decade by decade. Early on, the score by Richard Henn, who also conducts the pit orchestra, echoes Stravinsky, who was revolutionizing modern music in the first decade of the 20th century.
It’s positively thrilling to see concurrent developments in the arts, society and science linked with a synergy that’s never been consistently attempted by the pageant, which characteristically has valued familiar art images over providing insight into the artistic process.
The transformation by pageant director Diane Challis Davy, in her fourth year running the show, should have even the most hardened pageant scoffers doffing their caps in respect.
Yet, truth be told, the approach this year isn’t all that consistent. Instead of applying that intelligent synthesis from start to finish, the show still takes lengthy digressions to present crowd-pleasing images.
Act 1 continues with some enlightening background on the Harlem Renaissance of the ‘20s--culminating in the tableau vivant version of Archibald Motley Jr.'s 1929 painting “Jockey Club"--before detouring into pop culture with a whimsical presentation of a Rolls-Royce hood ornament (“Spirit of Ecstasy” created in 1924 by sculptor Charles Sykes) and then others from a ’31 Buick, a ’33 Packard and a ’33 Pierce Arrow.
They’re visually amazing set pieces, but they’re presented with minimal contextual comments elucidating the inestimable ways the automobile changed not only transportation but society in general--the car is, after all, embedded in the American psyche as one of the key tools with which we express our inalienable individual freedoms. The automobile also has been fodder for innumerable contemporary artists.
The program moves on to bas-relief friezes of laborers at work, from Cesare Stea’s 1939 “Bowery Bay Frieze” into an overly long segment dedicated to the ‘40s and World War II.
“The Good War” may well be the defining global event of this century--and it certainly is for the generation that also represented the core of the pageant’s audience at Tuesday’s performance. But taking time for two Norman Rockwell paintings, three pinup-girl posters for war bonds, three of Robert Graham’s sculptures for the FDR Memorial in Washington, as a trio of singers dressed in military gear sings war-era tunes, the pageant loses its strong focus on the most significant artists in exchange for simple nostalgia.
After intermission, the memory-lane stroll continues with its treatment of the ‘50s--which lasts all of about six minutes--and a representation of Grant Speed’s 1980 bronze sculpture of Buddy Holly. (The actor portraying the Holly statue looks more like a merger of rocker Chris Isaak and one of Charles Ray’s disconcerting mannequin self-portraits. Hey--why not actually do a Ray piece?)
The other nod to the ‘50s shows another major disconnect from the promising early tone of the show, with the staging of a Little Richard album cover. He was, of course, one of a handful of the most important early rock performers. But the album cover presented was not from the ‘50s; it was a budget reissue produced well after Richard and the other rock pioneers had been eclipsed by the Beatles.
Repeated, solarized images of the flamboyant rocker owe more to Andy Warhol--among the key Pop artists of the postwar era who are glaringly absent. (Jackson Pollock is mentioned only in passing, and then for comic relief as the narrator notes one of the disdainful sobriquets once given him: Jack the Dripper.)
Then come three--yes, three--more Rockwells before we get back to works by some artists who explored the defining moods of their time: George Segal’s ghostly ‘70s and ‘80s sculptures “Walk, Don’t Walk,” “The Commuters” and “Street Meeting” and David Hockney’s 1968 portrait “American Collectors (Fred & Marcia Weisman).”
Sandwiched between the Segal and Hockney pieces, for no apparent reason, is Robert B. Krantz’s 1972 bronze statue “Sea Birds,” a classically based exercise in form.
The fitting conclusion trades the pageant’s perennial show-closer--Da Vinci’s “Last Supper"--for Salvador Dali’s 1955 painting “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” It’s Dali at his most reverential, though, so pageant habitues needn’t fret. And it’s not as if anyone expects the pageant will ever attempt a Mondrian, Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano piece.
Despite the parts that betray a fear of going all the way with a thoughtful examination of what constitutes contemporary art, the smart overall concept and intelligent execution that emerges in several places makes this pageant fairly miraculous to behold.
The 1999 Pageant of the Masters presentation of “The 20th Century--Ten Decades of Art” is at Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 8:30 nightly. $10-$50, includes season pass to the Festival of Arts. Through Aug. 29. (800) 487-3378.