Tuesday, 13 March 2007

San Francisco

My trip to Austin had been paid for by good friends. But it seemed a shame, having gone all that way, not to go the extra distance and finally get to the West Coast. So I stumped up the money from ... funds.

I loved San Francisco as soon as I got there. As we drove in from the airport - we'd been picked up by another friend - there was an obvious difference in the countryside. After Texas's scrubby landscape, with what had looked like tar-paper shacks cowering amongst concrete flyovers, the land round the Bay Area was gorgeous, even in the rain. Green trees and grassy hills, with good-looking houses nestled here and there.

And the city was everything I thought it might be. The wonderful Victorian houses with their woodwork painted in terrific colours, the very European feel of the place. To make things even better, for the rest of our stay there, the weather was glorious, like an early summer day in the UK.

We could not have been better served by my friends there, some of whom I'd only met for the first time on this trip. They took time off work to drive us about. They bought us meals. One guy even drove in from LA and stayed in our hotel for a few days to show us around the city he'd lived in for many years.

I was particularly keen to see some of the WPA murals in San Francisco, so on our first day we stopped off at the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park. Difficult to photograph, but the murals are quite lovely. Actually, the whole building is a gem, with decoration in every part. The banisters, for example, are carved into the shape of sea creatures, such as squids.

Later in the day we drove up to The Coit Tower, where the views over the Bay are terrific, from the Golden Gate Bridge over to Alcatraz. There are more WPA murals in the Coit. Great stuff, showing ordinary people working in industry, in hospitals and on farms. Where the windows were set into niches, the niches themselves were disguised with clever trompe l'oeil shelves or bookcases.

I'd let it be known before I went that I was interested in seeing some Wayne Thiebaud paintings, if at all possible, so on the Thursday we were picked up by someone I knew only by name (but who soon became another good friend), who happened to have a pass to the De Young Museum. It's a fine looking building, the biggest in the world to be clad entirely in copper sheeting. When it's had a chance to patinate, it'll be glorious. San Franciscans can be truly proud of it.

Inside I was really in my element. They have an excellent 20th Century American collection and sure enough, three Thiebauds were on display. The earliest was the iconic "Three Machines." Often lumped in with the Pop Art movement, Thiebaud's paintings of gumball machines, pies and cakes are more a genuine celebration of the look of ordinary things than a knowing nod to the art of advertising and commercialism. He has more to do with Chardin than Warhol.

I'd have preferred to find one of his oil paintings of San Franciscan streets, but here was the splendidly wacky "Diagonal Freeway," an acrylic from 1993. Nice to be able to get up close and see some detail.

Further delights included the other great modern landscape painter of the Bay Area, Richard Diebenkorn. There was a lovely little painting called "Seawall," which I don't think I'd ever seen before. And there too was a painting by Elmer Bischoff, which I'm sure might interest Anna. Bischoff is someone I've only recently discovered, so it was a special thrill to find one of his works there.

And, of course, a visit to America wouldn't be the same without a picture by Edward Hopper. Not one I was very familiar with (I can't even find the title), and it was surprising how vibrant the colours were.

Close by was a fine example of Hopper's contemporary, Thomas Hart Benton. I've always had a soft spot for Benton's work, including his Regionalist depictions of Bible stories and this one, in tempera on canvas, is no exception. Susannah slips into a shady pool, her 1930s red strappy high-heeled shoes close at hand, while two geezers look on and discuss her disapprovingly, their rather Hopperesque church set up on a hill in the background.

And I could go on, but it's all in the past now. Look to the future now, it's only just begun ...

No comments: