Noe Valley Voice December-January 2000

Florence's Family Album

By Florence Holub

Although the month of December is always overcrowded with activities, I would like to add just one more thing to your list. At the end of the month, the de Young Museum will close its doors and begin construction of a new, state-of-the-art facility in Golden Gate Park, scheduled to open in 2005. So, this is your last chance for quite a while to appreciate the array of visual treasures there.

Just to whet your appetite, I'd like to describe some of the exceptional installations on display through the end of the year.

For those familiar with the Bible, as well as those eager for bits of American history, the exhibition titled "The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks" should fill the bill. Hicks, one of our nation's most famous folk artists, was born in 1780 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When he was a year and a half old, Hicks' mother died, and he was raised on a nearby farm by Quakers David and Elizabeth Twining.

At age 13, Edward was apprenticed to a coachmaker, who taught him to paint signs and decorations on horse-drawn carriages. Later, he started his own sign-painting business, which included doing ornamental brushwork on furniture. He also began attending Quaker meetings, and in 1811 he became an acknowledged minister. However, the Friends discouraged him from pursuing a livelihood in painting, a calling they deemed frivolous.

He gave up his business, probably reluctantly. But in 1816, he took up easel painting, this time cleverly adopting a subject taken from the Bible that the Friends could not very well object to--the peaceable kingdom, described in the book of Isaiah, chapter 11, verses 6 through 9.

During the next 33 years, Hicks painted 60 versions of this theme for friends and relatives. Each painting shows a serene, pastoral setting, reflecting the Quaker prophesy of peaceful coexistence between man and his environment. The wild animals are pictured as sweet and gentle, and a little child moves among them, trusting and unafraid.

Meanwhile, within the congregation, friction had grown between the orthodox Quakers and a splinter group, called "Hicksites" (after cousin Elias Hicks), with whom Edward was aligned. He began adding the figure of Elias Hicks to his Kingdoms, along with the text of the verses from Isaiah, such as "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb," in bold print. In the background, he depicted the early Quaker he idolized most, William Penn, negotiating an equitable treaty with the Delaware Indians that would keep the peace for 100 years. In the later paintings, a graceful young woman was introduced to signify liberty and innocence. She sits with her arm raised to hold the dove of peace on her finger, while beside her stands our nation's symbol, the bald eagle.

The paintings' message is timeless and universal, the style is "naïve" and charming. In addition to 20 versions of the peaceable kingdom, the Hicks exhibition features historical paintings and pastorals, and farmscapes recalling the farmland of the Twinings.

Another exhibit, "Great Nature: The Transcendental Landscapes of Chiura Obata," explores the life and works of the late master Chiura Obata (1885 ­ 1975), who was the most prominent teacher and practitioner of Japanese sumi-e ink and brush painting in the Bay Area. Obata's keen observation and reverence for nature shine eloquently in his renderings of the High Sierra and waterfalls and forests of Yosemite. His works also include firsthand drawings of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.

Like so many Japanese-Americans (he had emigrated to San Francisco in 1903), Obata and his family were interned in relocation centers during World War II. My man Leo and I visited our friend Nobuo Kitagaki, whose family was interned at Tanforan Relocation Center along with Obata's. We saw how under Obata's guidance the internees made creative use of their time, as demonstrated by the impressive art show on display. They employed whatever materials they had, even carving apricot seeds into beautiful miniscule objects of art!

Obata's son, Gyo, was already in college at the time and was allowed to complete his education. Today he is an internationally respected architect. Gyo's daughter, Kiku, an art major, was one of Leo's finest photography students at Stanford in the '70s. Chiura's wife, Huruko, was a master of ikebana, the art of flower arrangement. Until her death in 1987, she conducted classes in Japantown, and exhibited elegant works that we admired yearly at the Cherry Blossom Festival.

A third exhibition features a sampling of John Gutmann's 1999 bequest to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gutmann was a versatile artist and photographer, as well as a collector of African carved-wood sculpture. In two adjoining galleries are 70 of his remarkable photographs of China, Burma, and India, which he shot in his spare time while serving in the Armed Forces during World War II. About 20 pieces of west and central African sculpture are displayed in the hall leading to the cafe.

Gutmann was born in Germany, where he had a promising career as a painter and art instructor until its abrupt halt during the rise of Hitler. He left in 1933 and headed straight for San Francisco, where he lived for more than 60 years. Although I never met the gentleman, a Noe Valley oldtimer informed me that Mr. Gutmann once lived at the southwest corner of Church and Liberty streets. There is a painting, unfortunately not currently on view, that he painted from his front window looking across Dolores Park to the city beyond.

In the textile gallery, "From Three Continents" features objects from Africa, Asia, and South America, acquired by the museum in the past four years. The artifacts are mainly apparel, and they reveal a great deal about the people who created them. Among pre-literate peoples, clothing often served as a metaphor for status, revealing at a glance gender, rank, marital status, religion, and regional or tribal associations. Come to think of it, maybe this applies to the garb of us literate people, too.

From Brazil there are spectacular feather headdresses obtained from the exotic birds of the Amazon rain forest. In South America, feathers were highly prized for their brilliant color and also because they were so difficult to acquire. They could be used as currency or tribute, or in ceremonies in which the wearer believed he came to possess the bird's vital force and powers.

Two ancient garments that were woven 1,500 years ago in Peru, a tunic and a mantle, were donated anonymously in honor of the Incan culture, which has produced transcendent works of textile art for 2,500 years. There is also a fine collection of carefully woven bags used to hold the sacred coca plant.

These are just a few of the 50 acquisitions on display, and each plays a fascinating role in the history of mankind.

And for art lovers who want to take a peek into the future, the plan for the new museum, created by Herzog & de Meuron, is on exhibit in two rooms near the entrance. Architectural renderings, site photographs, videos, and models give a preview of the new directions the de Young Museum is taking to mirror its diverse audience. The new building will be equipped with all the latest technology to preserve and display the priceless treasures within its walls. You've probably guessed that the de Young is my favorite museum, and I, for one, can hardly wait until 2005!

To encourage everybody to take a last look at its treasures, the de Young Museum will be admission-free during its last week of business, Dec. 26 to 31.

On Friday, Dec. 22, after 20 years of docent duty, I shall give my final tour for the public. My vocal cords need a rest! If you can't make it to my talk, note that docent tours are given every day at 12:15 p.m.