Sunday, February 15, 2009

Artistic Luxury: Faberge, Tiffany, Lalique

The Legion of Honor Museum opened on Armistice Day in 1924, dedicated to the dead California soldiers of World War One.

It was constructed on the highest hill of Lincoln Park, San Francisco's first municipal golf course, which opened with three holes in 1902 and expanded over the next 15 years to 18 holes. The course was free to the public, by the way, until it became too popular and a $2/month fee was initiated in the 1920s.

The golf course was built over Potter's Field, which was San Francisco's 19th century public cemetery, with ethnic enclaves from Serbian to Chinese. Supposedly, all the graves were transferred to Colma ten miles south, but when the museum went through a retrofit in the mid-1990s, hundreds of skeletons were uncovered. In other words, there are a lot of ghosts still hanging about.

The museum was built with money from the Spreckels robber baron family, by the low-born Alma Charlotte Corday le Normand de Bretteville from the Sunset district. She was a nude artist's model (she can still be seen on the top of the Dewey monument in Union Square) who managed to trap the syphilitic Adolph Spreckels, who was twice her age, into marriage.

The Spreckels fortune started with his father, German immigrant Claus Spreckels, who opened a brewery in 1856 in San Francisco where he made a bundle. This was invested in California and Hawaiian real estate that eventually turned into a sugar monopoly, after which the family interests spread octopus-like into railways, publishing, and oil companies.

The "Artistic Luxury" exhibit uses the 1900 World's Fair in Paris as an excuse to put together the Russian Faberge, the American Tiffany and the French Lalique, who were the period's pre-eminent creators of objects d'art for grotesquely rich people around the world. 1890-1910, which is the arbitrary time demarcation for this exhibit, was also the heyday of Anarchism where the restless masses were regularly assassinating industrialists and heads of state with abandon.

The exhibit doesn't acknowledge any of that latter history. On the wall signage about the various "patrons" of all this decorative art, we are told about the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, and also about "Gilded Age Americans," but there is no mention of the Potter's Field ghosts who died working to make these people rich.

About half of the pieces in the exhibit are extraordinarily beautiful, with one Art Noveau cigarette case making me want to take up smoking again. After encountering one too many tasteless incarnations of conspicuous consumption, though, the whole thing started feeling like silver-coated, jewel-encrusted shit. In that sense, it's a perfect show for Dede Wilsey, President of the Board of Trustees.


zoo said...

u're so poetic these days aha
always learning new things about SF thanks to me, and probably as to many many foreigners who end up stuck in the bay area, the legion of honor always brings the ghost of Jimmy Stewart chasing twin blondes across SF!!

Joe Lynn said...

My first trip to the Legion was during Christmas season. Looking at a Fragonard, the walls started booming with sound -- a pipe organ concert playing Handel. It was magic.

Before the renovation last decade, there was a reading room in the basement very reminiscent of a fine men's club. I divided my time studying for the bar there and at Allyne park on Gough St. A wonderful time was had by all.

Matthew Hubbard said...

The low-born Alma Charlotte Corday le Normand de Bretteville. That's a lot of last names for a poor family to afford!

Civic Center said...

Dear Matty: The deadbeat father had a number of noble pretensions, which I'd say were fairly fulfilled through his daughter (though he wasn't alive to see it).

momo said...

I never knew about the Potters' Field! My mother used to work there, so I'd be over all the time.