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Who Was Harald Wagner?

Harald J. Wagner (also known as Harold, although the former was his preferred spelling) was the only child of Charles Jacob Wagner and Amelia Wagner. He was born in the small farming town of Falls City, Oregon, in 1903. Very little is known of his early life, although it is believed that he was strictly reared. After completing high school he attended the University of Oregon at Eugene, and studied English, civil engineering, architecture, and music, ultimately graduating with a degree in architecture. By 1927 he moved to San Francisco. Even as a young man, he is described by friends and relatives as having had great wit, charm, and style, added to a strong aesthetic sense and bohemian inclinations.

In San Francisco, Wagner obtained a job as a draftsman in the prestigious architectural offices of Bliss & Faville. At some point he worked his way up to the position of office keeper, in time becoming a protégé of William B. Faville, who was to become a strong influence. Faville, in his fifties, was a mature and accomplished artist as well as an architect. He greatly admired the work of Arthur and Lucia Mathews, important artists of the California decorative style who had designed fine custom furnishings and decorations for Bliss & Faville.

Inspired by California’s many natural panoramas in Carmel and the Sierras, Faville and Wagner traveled together to sketch and paint. Wagner’s beautiful flat-patterned watercolor landscapes show that he had absorbed the Mathewses’ aesthetics. Through Faville during the 1930s Wagner actually met Arthur and Lucia Mathews. Under Faville’s strong and sophisticated influence, Wagner developed his enthusiasm for the arts and for living a life of taste and style. He exhibited paintings at Gump’s, the Bohemian Club, the San Francisco Museum of Art at the Civic Center, and the Walker Galleries, Inc., in New York. When Faville died in 1947 Wagner must have felt a profound loss. Faville had named Wagner as executor of his estate and, and in later years, in accordance with Faville’s wishes Wagner spent considerable time and effort collecting the paintings and decorative arts of Arthur and Lucia Mathews.

In the same year Faville died, Harald Wagner became a civil service employee on Treasure Island, serving as assistant to public works, architecture, and engineering, a position he would hold for about ten years. Part of his job involved rebuilding ships that came to San Francisco after the war. During these years he also made quite a lot of money through renovating buildings. He was a clever man with boundless energy to buy buildings, work with friends to restore the buildings, and sell them for a profit, instinctively loving to beautify and re-create. He also had great sympathy for struggling artists and tried to do what he could to support them.

In the mid-1950s Wagner made his first trip to Mexico. Loving the country and its people, he traveled more frequently, a pattern that continued until his death. He studied and became fluent in Spanish. As in San Francisco, he surrounded himself with artist friends of all kinds, collecting pre-Hispanic art, the watercolors of Julia López, and Spanish colonial paintings. He purchased an eighteenth-century hacienda in the mountains of Jalisco (at Bolaños), which had been substantially damaged during the Revolution. Its restoration engrossed him, and he carefully documented the process through photographs. When finished, the hacienda became a local showplace, even visited by the governor of the state. Harald Wagner lived there for part of each year, but he maintained a home in San Francisco and constantly moved back and forth between both residences.

Although Wagner’s hacienda was nowhere near Teotihuacan, he was offered the opportunity in Mexico to acquire the Teotihuacan murals soon after they had been unearthed. It is easy to understand why he might have become immediately captivated by them on an aesthetic level, and more than willing to overlook the physical challenges of their great bulk and weight.

Wagner’s devotion to the California decorative style through his friendships with the Mathewses and Faville may have been a key factor in his zeal for Teotihuacan murals. Although the appearance of their work is utterly different, the precepts of the artists of the California decorative style and of the ancient Teotihuacan murals were in some ways compatible. Both groups of artists shared a keen love of the decorative and an interest in flat patterns and harmonized color relationships, strongly emphasizing allegory, abstraction, personification and symbolism. Both shared a love of natural forms, especially floral motifs, and of the exotic. Moreover, both shared the primary consideration of architectural context in planning a composition, as well as a concern for decorative frames or borders. Perhaps when Harald Wagner saw his first group of mural fragments, the art form itself was something he intrinsically admired and understood. Arthur Mathews had been known in his time as California’s greatest muralist, and Harald Wagner himself had even created a mural in the 1930s.

Certainly, Wagner’s training as an architect and his tremendous enjoyment from working with his hands must have rendered the crumbling walls a challenge not at all intimidating. According to his friends he used to enjoy rebuilding immense diesel engines and is also said to have built musical instruments. He must have appreciated the murals as pieces of architecture, seeing their decorative and dramatic possibilities, as few others could. Friends surmise that he may have collected the broken fragments with a strong sense of propriety and rectitude—a need to take something, improve upon it, and make it right. It is an interesting coincidence that Wagner must have been offered the Teotihuacan murals just after he had successfully completed years of negotiation to house the Mathews collection in museums in Oakland and Santa Barbara. The murals may have given him a new purpose, one supremely compatible with previous goals and experiences.

The details of Wagner’s purchase of the murals are not well understood for obvious reasons, but he left written receipts that indicate he had purchased the murals on four separate occasions, the first three transactions (August 1963, January 1965, April 1966) taking place in Mexico, the fourth (June 1968) in the United States. Several friends insist that he was not directly involved in the looting, but an explanation is needed for the extensive number of small carefully preserved fragments and crumbs that were also part of the Wagner collection. Perhaps his suppliers understood his penchant for order and attempted to gather smaller fragments. Or perhaps the murals were poorly packed and arrived broken in San Francisco.

Apparently it was Wagner’s plan to sell the murals once they were assembled. He applied a simply polyvinyl acetate adhesive to some of the crumbling backing, filled cracked or missing areas with plaster, overpainted or waxed some original surfaces, and finally mounted some of the large or most dramatic fragments by placing them in a wood-frame bed supported underneath by chicken wire, jute, and a thick layer of plaster of paris, which he then wedged with a thick corkboard infill about one-half inch lower than the mural surface. Despite the cumbersome mounting techniques, Wagner had the good sense to use a relatively restrained approach to restoration, to preserve the murals intact, and to employ material currently in conservation use at the time (Bone 1986).

Between 1967 and 1972 Wagner tried to sell the murals to various museums—including an approach to what he thought was the de Young Museum—but he was never able to find a buyer. In addition to the difficulties mentioned earlier, public consciousness about looted sites and stolen art treasures, especially acute after the early 1970s, had significantly increased. In an effort to sell the murals Wagner seems to have first approached several Bay Area museums, then contacted other museums in the United States, and finally offered the murals to museums as far away as Japan and the Middle East. It does not appear that he advocated selling portions of the collection separately, for to do so would contradict all his earlier efforts. Moreover, he never did complete the assembly of all the fragments, probably for the simple reason that he realized most of them did not fit together after all. There was no hope of putting them back into a larger context. In addition, the murals took up tremendous space in the gallery or workrooms of his residence.

Towards the end of his life, Wagner resolutely stipulated in a holographic will that the “Mexican murals” in his possession be donated to “the de Young Museum,” and that the museum pay the taxes and the substantial costs of administering his estate (see section I). He loved San Francisco and must have felt that the murals belonged in San Francisco’s City and County Museum. Two days before his seventy-third birthday Harald Wagner died in San Francisco. The cause of death is unknown, although friends attribute his death to kidney or liver problems somehow associated with frequent illnesses he acquired in his beloved Mexico.

–Excerpted from Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, 1988