Coit Tower Murals Recall a Happier Time, When Paparazzi were Beloved

You can thank the New Deal for the Coit Tower Murals on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. The Marriott hotel chain thinks these images are worth a look, so check them out next time you’re in the area.

Worthy of note is this section from Coit Tower’s first floor shown below. Click to expand: 

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See how respectful everybody is of the paparazzi (Italian for “photojournalists”) rushing in avec tripod to make a little money off tragedy? That’s quite different from these days, when you can get Bjorked for simply saying hello.

Nowadays, if you point a camera at Seal (Mr. Heidi Klum) and try to greet him, he might ask why he would “shake hands with scum.” Ouch.

And whatever you do, don’t try snapping photos of Matthew McConaughey while he surfs down in Malibu. Cause the Malibu Pump House Gang just might mass up and take you out. (And let’s not even talk about Barbra Streisand’s place down there. By all means, shutterbugs, stay out of Malibu!)

Old Matt McC. must really hate the paps, as he cameo’ed in the dreadful Mel Gibson movie Paparazzi (directed by Mel’s hairstylist from Lethal Weapon!) back in ought-four. In fact, lots of stars must hate the paps, given the large number of famous people who appeared in this “amazingly arrogant, immoral film.”

But some of the less famous actually dream about being followed around by a paparazzo. So much so, that they even pay for the privilege. And you can do it also now that Celeb For A Day has a San Francisco office. It’s only $500 for half hour of snapping, so sign up today and bring back the happy times when everybody got along with the paparazzi. Hurray!

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One Response to “Coit Tower Murals Recall a Happier Time, When Paparazzi were Beloved”

  1. Bruce Chesse says:

    On Sunday June 1 I made a speech at the Coit Tower Celebration commenting on how the artists themselves have been neglected by the city and at celebrations such as this. The text of my speech is shown below for those that missed it.

    Bruce Chessé

    Art and the Coit Tower
    by Bruce K. Chessé

    The Coit Tower and the art within it represents a period in time the likes of which we shall not easily see again in our lifetime. The WPA gave us the freedom to create art that spoke to the people with a healing effect. It was a collective period in which art was shared by all, those who created it and those who found pleasure in it simply by experiencing it. It brought people together and it was a time when art came with a point of view.

    My father arrived in San Francisco from New Orleans for the first time in 1923 and and then again in 1925 and in 1928 his entire family, mother, father, three sisters and a brother, subsequently followed him and took up lodging in a house on Blackstone Court at the foot of Lombard and Gough Street. it was the beginning of the “Great Depression”

    North Beach was a gathering place where ideas and experiences were exchanged. In this time of scarcity it was also a place where ones meager earnings could be pooled and shared so that no one went wanting. The young composer Lou Harrison found his interest in puppets fed by my fathers puppet shows. The “depression era” brought people together from all artistic disciplines.

    At the height of it my father established his first marionette theater in the Monkey Block (Now the Transamerica Tower Building) in North Beach. I think it cost him $25 a month. On the floor above Ernest Bacon the composer could be heard playing the piano. Others like Ralph Stackpool had studios in the building as well

    He became a part of a group of Bohemian artists including such notables as Stackpool, Victor Arnautoff, Lucian Labaudt, Maxine Albro, Jane Berlandina (two of the Coit Tower muralists), the three Bruton sisters, Bernard Zakheim, Otis Oldfield Matt Barnes, Peter Macchiarini, Giacomo Patri, Benny Bufano, Maynard Dixon, Ruth Cravath, and others.

    Forty five of whom, along with my father, Ralph Chessé, were chosen by Ralph Stackpool in 1933 to work on the WPA mural project in Coit Tower. Of the 45, 26 were given a space to carry out their designs. This was their legacy to San Francisco and as such it should be left alone in tribute to them untouched by the commercialism they were dead set against.

    In the early 40’s, heading up the school, many artists with Maynard Dixon became a part of Dave Jenkin’s California Labor School forming their own art movement. When you look them up in the California Art Histories they are often referred to as
    Bolsheviks, New Dealers, or Social Realists when in reality they rightfully should be called Northern California Moderns.

    But let’s take a look at how this group evolved. In 1906 the great earthquake and fire singlehandedly destroyed art as it existed in San Francisco. It was the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and the rebirth of the city. Thousands of paintings and art from all over the world were to be seen there. The French Pavilion introduced the public to the Impressionists, Cubists, Dadaists and other new schools of art emerging at the time in France.

    The Bohemian artists of San Francisco of the 20’s. 30’s and 40’s represented a transition in art from the ornate and the neo- classicism of Maybeck, to the minimalism of the impressionists and the social realism of Diego Rivera and the South American muralist movement. Hosted by Ralph Stackpool, Rivera was invited to San Francisco in 1930 and 40 leaving behind several murals after each visit. It was an exciting time for art politically in San Francisco. Art was everywhere and nowhere was it better
    personified than by the murals of the Coit Tower.

    Born in 1935, I can remember early trips to Telegraph Hill’s Well Baby Clinic and visiting with my father the artists living in North Beach. In 1938 & 39’ the Worlds Fair on Treasure Island again brought all the artists together again.

    In the 40’s I would sit with my father and brother in their booth at the Art Annuals put on by the Art Association. Each artist sat on a chair displaying their art having set their booths up in the park in front of City Hall. People would come by the hundreds visiting each booth and talking with one another about the state of art in San Francisco and comparing each artists approaches to art. This continued on well into the 50’s until the cold war and the House Un-American Activities Committee descended on America and decided that the socialistic concerns and needs of the poor was a breeding ground for the rise of communism.

    Did you know that in 1940 under Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program an exhibit of some 30 to 40 paintings were sent to Moscow. I called them the lost paintings. As far as I know most of the Coit Tower muralists contributed something to the exhibit. None of them have ever been seen again and are presumed to by languishing in the bowels of some Russian Museum.

    Only reproduction of “Marin Shipyard Workers”
    my fathers contribution to the Exhibit

    The art produced by the artists of the 30’s and 40’s in San Francisco was seriously
    devalued by their connection with Rivera and the left wing politics represented by the California Labor School which was put on the Attorney Generals list in the Early 50’s. Those connected to the longshoreman’s union run by Harry Bridges and Vincent Hallinan suffered as well. Those painting murals as well were devalued and the assumption was made that you weren’t working in other mediums.

    The Classic example was Lucian Labaudt who’s early death in Burma during WW II consigned him to that genre when in fact he was a prolific painter, costumer and ran the Classical School of Design in San Francisco. His wife Marcelle Labaudt did her best to keep his work in the public eye by opening her Fall season every year with a
    posthumous exhibit of his large canvasses in her gallery on Gough Street. I was asked to help set up the exhibit each year and lived in a basement apartment there in 67” and 68”.

    I remember at least 20 to 30 paintings being exhibited each year and knew that there were more in the upstairs studio. Where they are now is still a mystery since they were given to the San Francisco Art Association after Marcelle’s death by her sister Simone in lieu of back taxes that were owing on the building.

    In my fathers case his marionette work devalued him as an artist as well. It was only through the influence of Ralph Stackpool that my father was given a space in the Coit Tower Project. This is what my father had to say about it:
    “In local circles style determined your value as a
    painter.”

    In 1928 when he Submitted a painting to the Art Association’s Annual Art Exhibition titled the “Negro Madonna” he won the 2nd Ann Bremmer Prize. But because of the black subject matter he was asked to share the prize with Matthew Barnes.

    My father felt that you had to keep changing styles to get chosen for the annuals. Whereas David Park, Hans Hoffman, De kooning & Clifford Stills established trends they couldn’t change styles. De Kooning told him at one of the annuals that “Each artist has his own gimmick. I am trapped and can’t paint more then twelve paintings a year
    otherwise I drive down the prices”.

    My Father went on to say that WPA was exciting because everyone was working and it was a productive time for everyone. “The system here traps the creative person. A promoter is needed. I couldn’t fight my way through as a painter because it was too restrictive in terms of style. Most of my contemporaries didn’t survive on their painting. I didn’t start off to be a craftsman but it let me try different things. I couldn’t mass produce. Art is a matter of feeling”

    The early 50’s created an era of mistrust. It branded the San Francisco artists as socialists, left wingers and linked them to the “Communist Conspiracy”. They became victims of the cold war and relegated them to a degree of obscurity. Where can you see their work or the work of the women artists of this era like Emmy Lou Packard, Dorothy Puccinelli and the aforementioned Maxine Albro, Jane Berlandina (two of the Coit Tower muralists), and the three Bruton sisters. With regard to the women have any of you out there heard theses names before or are familiar with their work?

    The contributers to the Coit Tower are rarely represented in our local museums. The only gallery dealer paying tribute to them is Spencer Helfen at the Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts Gallery on West Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. I recommend you go online (helfenfineArts.com) and see the diversity of the artists represented there who have long been overlooked.

    And yet their influence could be seen in rise of the Bay Area Figurative movement of the 50’s led by David Park and others such as Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn and James Weeks. All of these artists were members of the Art Association and
    exhibited at the Art Annuals. My father and his contemporaries participated in these Annuals. They were all familiar with each others work. Jim Weeks knew my father and married a former girlfriend of my brother Dion. They were artists whose work,
    fortunately, became well known beyond the Bay Area and now command significant prices. They can also be found in important museums on both coasts. It is interesting to note that their path to prominence only came with their being recognized by the Eastern Art establishment.

    My father when he died in 91’ left behind over 900 works of art most of which have never been represented by a major retrospective exhibition in the Bay Area. True to his word he was not restricted by style. Throughout his life he painted what he felt and what he saw. Very few people have seen the eclectic legacy he has left behind.

    The same may be said of all those who worked on the Coit Tower Project. They were individual artists in their own right working in more than one medium. The Coit Tower Murals are the only part of their artistic legacy that is accessible. Not only do these murals need to be preserved, the Coit Tower is the only official reminder that tells us they were here. The local art establishment has neglected them as artists. Let us not neglect the only public reminder we have of one the greatest art movements in our cultural history the WPA. The Coit Tower and what it represents is a unique entity that should be revered as a cultural icon not prized for its commercial potential. Its
    integrety needs to be upheld and it is up to us to see that it is.

    Finally, San Francisco has always prided itself as being “the city that knows how”. Sadly it doesn’t. Can you find many of the prolific artists of the 20’s, 30’s, & 40’s
    represented in the stellar museums of the Bay Area. I would challenge you to find even 20%. In SFMOMA, the DeYoung or the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Little is
    mentioned of the Coit Tower artists now and their works are not to be to be found in their collections in spite of the fact that a majority of them had at one man shows
    locally or were part of collective shows presented in the Museums of San Francisco in the 30’s and 40’s.

    The City of San Francisco should discontinue the turf wars and the internal power struggles. We memorialize the Coit Tower as being an Art Deco architectural wonder at the same time at events such as these while little is mentioned of the artists who
    created the wonderful murals within. Most of them were more then just muralists and the additional work they left behind is equally as significant and were responsible for encouraging and influencing later movements in art such as the “San Francisco
    Figurative Painters” that brought renown outside of our City as well as increasing their monetary value as opposed to those tagged as artists of the “Left” .

    Bruce K. Chessé
    5/4/08