Curator Interview

Office hours with James A. Ganz, curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

There are plenty of big names in this exhibition, and quite a few iconic works. Beyond the obvious draws, is there anything specific that visitors shouldn’t miss?

I have to give a shout-out to the murals—I think people will be amazed by them. These are epic works, and they really give a glimmer of the scale of the original exhibition. The first thing you’ll see when you enter the exhibition is a mural called The Victory of Culture over Force (Victorious Spirit) by Arthur Frank Mathews, who was a Bay Area artist.

The End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser is another must-see. This exhibition includes a smaller bronze version of the monumental sculpture that was a very popular part of the exposition. It’s a complex work and it needs to be viewed with some ambivalence—is it sympathetic to the Native American, or is it celebrating the westward migration that pushed his race to the brink of annihilation, which is to say, the end of the trail?

It’s not an obvious choice, but I also really wanted to have The Charge (Le charge), a painting by André Édouard Devambez that belongs to the Musée d’Orsay. I love his sinister take on a view—the street from above— that the Impressionists favored. I’m intrigued to have this large, powerful picture in the midst of works by other French artists that people know and love, like Degas and Monet. I think it’s going to be a sleeper hit.

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was a key moment in San Francisco’s history, and we’re still feeling its influence today. Can you talk a little about that connection?

The exposition was a major influence in the shaping of modern San Francisco’s cultural institutions. The Legion of Honor was a direct outcome of the fair, as was a major expansion of the Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park—now the de Young. Coming just nine years after the earthquake of 1906, the city was really reborn as an arts capital.

There were a lot of wealthy collectors in San Francisco when the earthquake struck, and a great deal of art was lost. But just five years after that cataclysm, the fair’s organizers committed to bring all this important art together in the same city where tragedy had struck. It’s just incredible what they achieved, especially with the First World War looming. Even 100 years later it’s been challenging to organize just a fraction of the works, so my hat is off to these people.

The exposition’s centennial is being celebrated all over the city this year, but what’s special about focusing on the art from the fair?

Some of these galleries are going to surprise our visitors just as they did fairgoers in 1915. It is customary to look back on a world’s fair with nostalgia or a feeling of superiority because the high-tech marvels of the time now seem so quaint. The 1915 exposition included a few of these novelties—the world’s largest typewriter for example, and a pavilion of infants in incubators.

But seeing this art is really the only way to have the same experience as visitors did then. I want people to feel like they’re going back in a time machine to stand in the shoes of fairgoers in front of these amazing works. They’ll experience that surprise, that same shock, that visitors did in 1915, when having been soothed by the harmonious color scheme of the Jewel City and the many beautiful galleries of American and French Impressionism, they found themselves in a raucous roomful of paintings by Boccioni, Russolo, and Severini. Futurism had arrived.

Night Illumination—Panama-Pacific International Exposition—San Francisco, California, 1915, 1915. Published by Pacific Novelty Company. Color letterpress halftone. FAMSF, gift of Barbara Jungi in memory of Elsie F. Miller; Image © FAMSF; Arthur Frank Mathews, The Victory of Culture over Force (Victorious Spirit) (detail), 1914. Oil on canvas. San Francisco War Memorial; James Earle Fraser, The End of the Trail, modeled ca. 1894, cast ca. 1925. Bronze. The Rockwell Museum, Corning, New York, 78.88; Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Soccer Player (detail), 1913. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, 580.167. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY