San Francisco: de Young and Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums

Posted on Nov 14, 2012 in category

The Presidio of San Francisco or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is over 598 hectares mostly of public park land with an interesting history in itself. Until 1994 when the National Park Service took it over for a short time, it boasted of being the longest occupied military establishment in the U.S.A. Originally the Spanish established a military presence on the Presidio in 1776 as part of its imperial 'New Spain'. An archaeological excavation in 2005 of the Officers' Club, Plaza de Las Armas, discovered the original Spanish adobe walls dated circa.1792.



Mexico followed suite in 1822 only to lose it in the peace terms of the Mexican War (1846-1848). The 'Buffalo soldiers' or segregated African-American troops were stationed here for many years. Over 400 Buffalo soldiers from the 9th/10th Cavalry and 24th/25th Infantry regiments are buried at the Presidio.Read: Buffalo soldiers ride again!

For an interesting insight into the racial prejudice experienced over many decades by the Buffalo soldiers read: William T. Bowers et. ali., Black Soldier- White Army,(Washington D.C., 1996), Chapter 1. Black Soldier- White Army pdf.


One blemish to its military tradition was the order given from its base here which eventually interned 110,000 innocent Japanese-American families as a security threat during World War II. They lived in mostly 'subnormal' housing gaining an average food allowance of 45-48 cents (War Relocation Authority, May 1943) War Relocation Authority Report May 1943

San Francisco's twin Fine Arts museums, the de Young and Legion of Honor, are also located in the Presidio area. The former museum specialises in American arts such as Mesoamerican and Andian cultures whilst the latter's collections focus on the European decorative arts especially French Baroque and Rococo cultural history. 

The de Young Fine Arts Museum was famous for returning over 70% of Teotihuacan murals to the Mexican government after it was bequeathed a huge collection in varied condition by American millionaire Harald Wagner in 1976. It took $500,000 and three years of restoration work before the 10 crates of items were ready for display. The Teothihuacan culture predated the Aztecs, who arrived in 1350 A.D., by 600 years. The Aztecs on arrival named the city of Teothihuacan 'City of the Gods' because of the monumental architecture that covered over nearly 20 square kilometres which reinforced the concept that it was "the place where gods are made" (Codex Chimalpopoca written in 1558 by an anonymous Nutuatl writer). A UNESCO site since 1987, Teotihuacan includes the famous stepped pyramids called the 'Pyramid of the Sun' and the 'Pyramid of the Moon'. Amazingly, only a small percentage of the area has been excavated (10% in 1995). Teotihuacan culture dominated Mesoamerica for 800 years with its heyday believed to be between the 2nd-3rd centuries A.D.

This tassel-headdress processional figure (400-600 A.D.) represents one of the few examples of named Teotihuacan personnages assuming the emblems at his feet signify names.

An example of a mural from the Harald Wagner Bequest dated 650-750 A.D. This representation of a flowering tree is one of several flowering trees depicted beneath an elongated feathered serpent. In Teotihuancan there were located over 2000 apartments grouped in neighbourhood centres called 'barrios' or compounds such as Zacuala, Atetelco, Yayahuala, Teopancazco, Xolalpan, Tlamimilolpa, La Ventilla B, Oztoyahuaco and Tlajinga 33. Each 'barrio' or compound was centred around open three-temple plazas.For example at Teopancazco

Corporate groups sharing kinship, residence and occupation lived in separate compounds. Each compound was divided into zones such as a gathering area, food preparation and dining as well as sleeping zones.Although the compounds were designed for multifamilies it didn't mean that families had equal social/economic status (Manzanilla, 1996). Each family had its own ritual courtyard where one family could worship an impressive Thunder God, another a Fire God statue whilst in a poorer family's ritual courtyard, a simple rabbit!

Each apartment consisted of a 'maze' of in some cases 50 rooms around a central courtyard. Within some of these apartments, elaborate murals were crafted using a fresco technique whereby pigments were applied to wet lime plaster. Often the elite of society were shown along with a variety of animals and gods.

An earthenware lid to a two-part altar censer used for burning copal, a fragrant tree resin, during rituals. A face in the middle is topped by butterfly wings which may have represented death or fertility. It is dated 400-600 A.D. Altar censers were probably a state-controlled, religious process; however, much of Teotihuacan's production was household based, taxed and regulated, but not state-sponsored (G.L.Cowgill, 1997, p.16).

 Two extraordinary finds at Teopancazco 'barrio' included evidence of processing human bodies: cooked, roasted, nibbled, cut and made into masks and instruments as well as, decapitation of males with heads placed in vessels that were buried in pits sometimes along with newborn babies. For an excellent 2009 archaeological report including plans and photographs by L. Manzanilla and C. Chapdelaine read: Domestic Life in Prehispanic Capitals

Evidence of 'foreign' residence namely, Oaxacan and Mayan, were found in the cluster of 12 compounds on the western edge of Teotihuacan and in the 'Merchants' Barrio' respectively. The discovery of large quantities of  specialised 'San Martin Orange'  utility ware in Tlajinga 33 compound, may reflect the existance of low-status artisans whose smoky kilns may have been unpleasant (G.L.Cowgill, 1997). See: State and Society at Teotihuacan

 The Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum was donated to the citizens of San Francisco in 1924 by Alma de Bretteville Spreckels to honour the Californians who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War 1. Many magnificient examples of European fine arts are on display. As one enters the front courtyard, appropriately Rodin's 'The Thinker' stops visitors in their tracks!

There are many versions of Rodin's 'The Thinker' in museums throughout the world. This one was signed by Rodin although it was commissioned by him to be cast by Alexis Rudier. 'The Thinker' was originally 'The Poet' representing Dante at the 'Gates of Hell' as mentioned in The Divine Comedy- an appropriate theme to commemorate the victims of World War 1 who experienced such an abhorrent scene in their trenches!

An exhibition by Czech-born Vogue illustrator, Rene Bouche, showed life in Paris after the defeat of Hitler's Nazi Germany in 1945. The above pen and ink with colour additions is entitled, 'La Parisienne' (1945). Bouche fought for the Free French army after fleeing Berlin in the 1930's, he was captured, escaped and fled to the USA where he became a citizen. Portraits of food rationing for the Parisian populace juxtaposed against U.S. troops living it up in the night clubs certainly made an interesting comparison.

'Waiting in line for a fish ration' 1945.

'5 o'clock beer - cherchez la femme, never mind where and how' 1945'.

 No blog entry on San Francisco would be creditable unless the Golden Gate Bridge was mentioned. Built by five counties of the San Francisco Bay area between 1933-1937, the bridge was preceded by a long period of controversy. The bridge's detractors pointed to its original estimated $100 million cost, the 'ugly' design of the first bridge design (it was ugly too!), the takeover of military land on both sides of the bay, ferry companies' screams of imminent bankrutcy and the formation of a new tax district to administer the project. See: To build or not to build that was the question!

Today a cloud of controvery still envelopes the GGB. A campaign called 'Golden Gate Waste' has highlighted the poor management of the bridge. In particular, the action group has exposed the high lead contamination risks in the painting of the bridge. The campaign organisers have pointed out the poor work practices of the painting contractors who through inadequate containment of the discarded lead paint are putting at risk the health of their workers, citizens of the Bay and the general environment. See: 'The Golden Gate Bridge is Broke' Campaign

The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District was only formed after bitter court cases in the late 1920's. The Board's still generating ill-feeling in the community especially about its alleged wasteful practices.









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