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By Jonathan Haeber
In 1939 an odd, pentagon-shaped island arose from San Francisco Bay’s murky waters to be the showcase of a rising and affluent West. Treasure Island would be host to the last great fair before the beginning of a long, Cold War. The Golden Gate International Exposition represented a proud San Francisco, not willing to allow New York to hoard all of spotlight for the East’s own approved and sanctioned “World’s Fair.” Despite the fact that San Francisco couldn’t call their fair a world’s fair, they still produced some of the finest artwork from around the world; the greatest architects; and some of the first artistic photographic prints. It was here, at the Golden Gate International Exposition, that America hosted its first Michelangelo.
On the brink of America’s entrance in a World War, the exposition was the last moment of glory, at a critical juncture in America’s history. The country had just exited the brutality and the banality of a Great Depression only to enter into a brutal and bloody battle against Nazi Germany. But San Francisco, as ‘Janus-like’ as can be, wasn’t going let this window of opportunity go to waste.
What was to become the centerpiece of the fair was a group of six murals depicting the Pacific Rim in all of its cultural and natural glory. José Miguel Covarrubias was a confidante of Mexican greats Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. As a caricaturist for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, it could easily be assumed that Covarrubias’ is largely ignored by fine art historians, but he was an anthropologist and geographer as much as he was an artist, which gave him a unique respect among art aficionados. In fact, many of us have probably seen works of Covarrubias without knowing it; pick up any copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men and the sweeping colors of the cover are trademark Covarrubias; thumb through the pages, and the charcoal sketch of a shapely female figure could only be a Covarrubias.
It was likely his association with Edward Weston and other notable figures in California art that secured his commission for the GGIE. It may have also been the popularity that his work had ignited among New Yorker and Vanity Fair readers. In any case, the construction of the Pageant of the Pacific was well under way, and the West’s version of the Crystal City was nearly complete. Covarrubias was to paint six gigantic murals, measuring as much as 15 feet high by 24 feet across.
Each mural would illustrate the glory of the Pacific – its art, natural history, architecture, and culture. From the “Peoples of the Pacific,” to the natural science in the “Flora and Fauna” mural, the beauty of these six murals is way too great to be described in words. Not only are they an informative lesson in Geography, but they are also a great piece of history – to say nothing about their creator. The Golden Gate Exposition only lasted eight months, but popular demand called for another re-opening from May to September of 1940. Then the elements began to take over the plaster structures.
The temporary structures were soon demolished. Japan had invaded Pearl Harbor. America was at war. Treasure Island – what was once a grand showcase of art and architecture — had become a war-time naval base. Covarrubias’ six murals would be transferred to the Museum of Natural History in New York, and they would not be heard from again for another 18 years.
When the murals were arranged for transfer to San Francisco’s Ferry Building in the late 1950s, one of Covarrubia’s best works, the mural entitled “Art Forms of the Pacific Area,” was nowhere to be found. Some theorists say that “Art Forms of the Pacific” was simply thrown away because the wall space of the Ferry Building would only allow for five murals. But others say this is unlikely, given that its value is appraised at over $1 million. Still, five murals remain, and one was recently installed at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, paintakingly restored and ready to display its former glory as the showpiece of San Francisco’s greatest fair.
A video slideshow of Miguel Covarrubias artwork.
- Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “The Case of the Missing Mural.” http://www.famsf.org/blog/index.asp?articleid=109
- “Hard Times and High Visions.” Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley. http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/Looking/hardtimes.html
- Postcards from the Golden Gate International Exposition. http://www.postcard.org/ggie01.htm