‘Romance of the Bells’ at Pasadena Museum of California Art

You don’t have to look very hard to find the legacy of California’s Spanish missions in the Southland. Adobe walls, red-tiled roofs and rounded arches are the lingua franca of the region’s architecture, gracing everything from homes and churches to civic buildings and shopping malls. Just as Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. is a sanitized version of small-town America, Southern California can feel like a sprawling stage set of its colonial past.

An exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, “Romance of the Bells: The California Missions in Art,” feeds this predilection with a cheery selection of bucolic and often winsome paintings of sun-baked plazas, graceful colonnades and lush vegetation. Although the canvases range from the late 1800s to the 1940s, they reveal the artistic preoccupations of the late 19th century: the influence of Impressionism and a powerful nostalgia for preindustrial society.

However, the exhibition presents the works not within the context of their own time but within the history of the missions themselves, almost a century earlier. It’s a strange curatorial decision, and it amplifies the gap between the paintings’ misty, romanticized vision and the candor of historical fact.

Indeed, the show is loaded with facts. From a series of lengthy wall texts, we learn that Spain built and operated the missions from 1769 until 1822, when California was claimed by the newly independent Mexico. The Mexican government secularized the missions, parceling out the land and letting the buildings fall into disrepair. By 1850, when California attained U.S. statehood, these crumbling, archaic buildings had become attractive subjects for artists in search of quintessentially Western imagery.

This information is certainly pertinent and illuminating, but the wall texts are so detailed that they seem jarring next to the pastoral images on view. In fact, the exhibition’s narrative treats the paintings almost as historical illustrations, even though they were created at least 50 years after the events described. This confusion of two distinct time periods encourages us to see the works as transparent windows on California’s “golden age,” and frankly, it’s a disservice to the art.

For one thing, the exhibition’s focus on mission history reduces early examples of American Modernism to nothing more than pretty pictures, ignoring their connections to the larger, international artistic trends of the time.

For example, Alson Clark’s 1918 painting “San Juan Capistrano” is clearly influenced by the time he spent in Paris before World War I. Its tightly cropped view of a row of arches is strikingly flat, reflecting the Impressionist emphasis on light and surface over classic perspective. And the near-fluorescent shades of pink, aqua, green and orange hark back to the vibrant palettes of Matisse and the Fauves.

To be fair, the exhibition catalog provides much of this information, situating the artists within a school of California Impressionism that blended the brushy, stippled techniques of Monet and Renoir with an almost spiritual reverence for the American landscape. It also relates how their fascination with the missions reflected the late 19th century longing for agrarian societies: To people reeling from the sooty advances of the Industrial Revolution, the missions’ crumbling ruins, redolent with the ghosts of fallen empire, must have seemed a perfect symbol of a bygone rustic life.

It’s too bad most of this information didn’t make it onto the walls. If it had, it might have better explained the recurrence of at least one popular motif: adobe buildings overrun by plant life. Joseph Kleitsch’s 1924 painting of San Juan Capistrano is a paroxysm of energetic green brush strokes that push the buildings into the background. And Julie Morrow, one of three women in the show and a sort of latter-day Pointillist, depicts Capistrano’s walls and flowers as a nearly continuous riot of colorful dots and dabs.

These exuberant works, although far from radical, are among the more formally adventurous pieces. There are certainly a number of conservative ones, in particular those of Edwin Deakin and Charles Rogers, whose sentimental pictorialism is a direct ancestor of the work of Thomas Kinkade. Rogers’ 1913 painting of a lone spray of pink roses on a shadowy, ivy-coated arch is classic treacle.

Unfortunately, the exhibition itself falls prey to such overwrought emotion, celebrating romanticized views of the missions even as its wall texts tell a different story. One panel basically describes the missions as mini oligarchies, each overseen by a pair of priests who expropriated hundreds of acres of land and coerced unpaid Native Americans to cultivate it, all in the name of God and civilization. Such brutal realities can hardly be described as golden, and they make the paintings seem hopelessly naive.

Had the show acknowledged as much, it could have provided a complex picture of the intersecting artistic and cultural currents in turn-of-the-century California, but as it stands, “Romance of the Bells” rings hollow.