Browsing for Francis McComas
I became as soon as daydreaming in a clean California art gallery in 2017, surrounded by racks of early twentieth century landscapes, the craquelure of aging paint mirrored within the ornate gilding of frames hand-carved more than a century within the past. A ringing cell phone broke the silence. On the replacement pause, a client spoke, “I desire you to search out out all the pieces you’d also about Francis McComas.”
At the same time as you occur to’re asking, Francis who? — you’re no longer alone. I’d in actuality honest proper in historic California paintings for seven years and even gentle I’d only muster a rapid summary of his existence. Born in Tasmania, immigrated to California across the flip of the century, grew to turn into a winning watercolorist in San Francisco, married a fellow painter. And then, in some unspecified time in the future within the 1920s, disappeared.
My client already knew the summary; a outstanding collector and scholar of history, he’d been taking a see into McComas’ anecdote for some time. The problem became as soon as, there wasn’t remarkable of a anecdote to search out: there were no books about him, no journal articles, very puny be taught or prognosis. The single “real” biography I’d establish my hands on on the time became as soon as a dusty, uncited WPA monograph from the 1930s. I known as my sources, a conclude-knit community of California dealers: nobody would perhaps well even agree on when McComas became as soon as born, remarkable much less where he went to varsity, what he became as soon as like as an person, or why he disappeared. His work popped up on the internal most market infrequently for effectively into six-figures, but his existence became as soon as an enigma.
So, I started digging.
I didn’t are unsleeping about it then, but this effort would turn into the singular level of curiosity of the next two years of my existence, culminating in a McComas retrospective on the Monterrey Museum of Art. As my be taught unfolded, I ranged thousands of miles across the US West, monitoring down leads in museums and internal most collections, poring over troves of internal most letters unread for a hundred years, interrogating archivists from Los Angeles to Paris to Tasmania. Slowly, the answers started coming in.
The info be taught like a pulp unique. McComas became as soon as effectively-known as a boxer, drinker, and Lothario — but furthermore an authoritative intellectual and orator. He exhibited in galleries and museums across the realm. He vacationed on the Ionian Sea with the Prince of Greece and made movies with Cecil B. Demille. He lunched with Charlie Chaplain, yachted with Phoebe Hearst, and helped capture the effectively-known illuminati retreat identified as Bohemian Grove
The more I learned, the more unbelievable the anecdote grew to turn into, and the more obsessed I grew to turn into. I knew something else became as soon as there, obscured by the spectacle and flourish of this principal existence — something that wouldn’t only sate my curiosity but reorient my figuring out of Californian art history.
McComas became as soon as drawn to the landscape of the western United States, from the lush, meandering shoreline of the Pacific to the barren climes of Arizona barren region. He lived in Northern California for most of his existence, though he traveled broadly. I’d been monitoring his movements through the teens, twenties, and thirties, when I began to appear that his reductive, highly geometric works regarded curiously upfront of his fellow Californian painters. And there became as soon as something else, too, something more subtle, a vein spreading from Paris to Unique York, snaking and branching but shifting ever westward, eventually crashing against the Pacific in 1915: following McComas, I noticed I became as soon as furthermore following the course of Western visual modernism.
Indubitably, this course began long earlier than and persevered long after the sliver that lay under my scope. But on this allotment of the proceed, from the studios of the Parisian proto-Cubists to the inchoate beginnings of modernism in San Francisco, each step along the kind, McComas became as soon as there. He became as soon as in France for the Cézanne and Braque exhibitions of 1907, the formative moments of Cubism; he exhibited on the 1913 Armory Say, the first mountainous enlighten their non-public praises of modernism within the US; he became as soon as a curator of the 1915 Panama-Pacific World Exposition (PPIE), the greatest art enlighten their non-public praises ever held in California and harbinger of as a lot as date art within the glean 22 situation; his work became as soon as within the foundational sequence of the San Francisco Museum of Art, later to turn into SFMOMA.
I became as soon as studying a transcript of the 1916 Symposium on Common Art, a public debate by which McComas argued in desire of avant-gardists over San Francisco’s traditionalist, faux-European teachers, when it struck me: This wasn’t correct some early modern painter — this became as soon as California’s first modernist.
It became as soon as the respond to a inquire I hadn’t even identified to inquire. While modernism’s arrival in Unique York through Europe has been effectively studied, given the dearth of be taught on its emergence in California you’d think that in some unspecified time in the future it correct confirmed up. But, surely, things don’t correct “enlighten their non-public praises up.” Raise out follows motive, and battles for progressivism are laborious won by dedicated activists combating for terribly explicit dreams.
McComas had won prominence rapidly after his 1898 arrival in San Francisco for his work within the then-standard kind of California Tonalism, a Barbizon-esque invent of plein air landscape painting akin to European genres of the prior century. But over the following years, as he travelled for the length of the mountainous art centers of the Western world — Paris, London, Unique York — he began to see the arts of California as stultifying and antiquated. Around 1910, he made a unsleeping decision to contain the idioms of emerging European modernism, leaving on the back of the Tonalist conventions of softened invent and subdued palettes in desire of deeply faceted polygonality, jarring standpoint, and audacious, totally saturated colors.
While remarkable of the culturati west of the Mississippi became as soon as gentle waking as a lot as the shock of Impressionism, McComas and a little cadre of like-minded, equally effectively-travelled artists, collectively with Arthur Mathews, Xavier Martinez, Eugen Neuhaus, and Arthur Putnam, had coalesced around San Francisco’s Bohemian Membership, and were beginning a campaign for radical progressivism within the visual arts. The Stamp Hopkins Institute of Art (recently identified as the San Francisco Art Institute) and its affiliate member organization, the San Francisco Art Association (SFAA), had been the seat of academic connoisseurship and the arbiters of taste within the glean 22 situation for a protracted time, and it became as soon as upon them that McComas loosed his most withering opprobrium. In a speech revealed in The Oakland Tribune on October 11, 1914, he acknowledged:
“Right here in San Francisco, an establishment lies rotting on a hill, doing its simplest to throttle and strangle art, and no longer sparkling sufficient to comprehend that where it objectives at abolish it’s some distance reaching only suicide.”
He condemned Hopkins and SFAA for his or her dull imitations of anachronistic European academicism. Their galleries and studios were “morgues” peopled with zombie painters. He lambasted the de Younger Museum, the one elephantine-scale exhibition condominium within the metropolis moreover Hopkins, quipping in a July 19, 1913 article within the Bay Space weekly Town Discuss, “This latter mountainous institution is for the family gem stones which of us are bored with having across the attic.” Of the metropolis’s critics, he acknowledged, “they peril to tell the real fact or else they don’t are unsleeping about it.”
Despite his attacks on the used art world, by the early 1910s McComas became as soon as undoubtedly one of many most standard painters within the metropolis. It became as soon as rumored within the clicking that he became as soon as the most costly watercolorist within the realm. Probably it’s no shock, then, given his mercurial rising massive establish, that he became as soon as chosen as a curator for the PPIE, the “World’s Lovely” in San Francisco held to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal. The magnificent’s committee of California jurors became as soon as soundless of McComas, Mathews, Neuhaus, William Wendt, and Paul Gustin; McComas and Mathews were additional known as “artists in whom the administrators scheme conclude the elementary significance of American art to be incarnate,” and got their very contain gallery exhibitions — the one two residing California painters afforded the distinction, per The Superstar Tribune in Minneapolis.
To their credit ranking, the directorate of the PPIE took a indispensable risk deciding on McComas, Mathews, and Neuhaus; the artists were effectively identified for his or her modern inclinations and it became as soon as imaginable they’d alienate more conservative audiences must they stray too removed from licensed norms. But the administrators agreed that a World’s Lovely must err on the facet of the spectacular, and so each the McComas committee and diverse art juries got a huge berth to capture out work.
When the galleries opened, it became as soon as the greatest exhibition of paintings ever held in California, virtually ten times the scale of the Armory Say, with heaps of of artists representing thousands of works. Nineteen million of us — virtually one fifth the inhabitants of the United States — attended the Expo, and for virtually all of them it became as soon as there that they realized this atypical and exhilarating modern thing known as as a lot as date art. A ways from alienating the public, the enlighten their non-public praises proved such an enchantment that after the Expo got here down in December 1915, McComas became as soon as chosen to co-curate a four-month Post-Exposition Exhibition (PEE), to be held within the Palace of Favorable Arts. Travelling east, McComas and his co-curator, John Trask, visited Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and Unique York, deciding on work to interchange those which had already been offered or returned to artists.
They gathered objects from the country’s most visionary — and polarizing — modernist painters, collectively with George Bellows, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and Max Weber. The works they selected were so divisive that the Symposium on Common Art became as soon as convened to debate the hazards of what his detractors noticed as a atypical and perverse abuse of ingenious values. The main institutional voices of the Bay Space, collectively with painters of the SFAA moreover to school at Hopkins and UC Berkeley, lined as a lot as oppose McComas and Trask. Among their most ardent critics, Arthur Pope, a professor of art and aesthetics at Berkeley, stated outright that he became as soon as “against [modernism] barely strongly,” calling Cubist and Futurist artists “occultists” and “frauds.”
McComas did now not mince phrases in his respond:
They [opponents of modernism] are labeling themselves as being barely dull, and barely unintelligent, and barely without creativeness. And I am obvious they invent no longer prefer to saddle themselves with those explicit labels. […] It is no longer this motion that the plea desires to be made for. It is barely for the of us who tell on staying out of it.
The traditionalist aesthetes of Hopkins and the SFAA were unmoved by McComas’ indictments. But what they didn’t know, or were perhaps too afraid to admit, became as soon as that, within the eyes of the public they’d already lost. Following the occasions of 1915-1916 there became as soon as an explosion of visual modernism in San Francisco, California at elephantine, and indeed for the length of the US West. What scholarship there may be on the impact of the PPIE and PEE does acknowledge their section in fostering progressivism in Northern California’s visual arts, but what has been neglected is McComas’ main operate in shaping the persona of those occasions and through them the ingenious landscape of California.
But this begs a inquire: if this McComas man’s such a gigantic deal, why haven’t I heard of him? Successfully, partially, it’s because he didn’t desire us to. At the head of his status within the early 1920s, McComas withdrew from the public hit upon. For the final fifteen years of his existence, he refused solo exhibitions whilst the country’s main gallerists and museum administrators implored him to mount a enlighten their non-public praises. He gave work to little neighborhood exhibitions here and there, but only to those with whom he had a internal most connection. He below no circumstances acknowledged why he turned his back on the public art world. Some speculated that he’d grown weary of the work inquisitive about mounting elephantine solo shows. Or perhaps he’d simply bored with studying his establish within the metropolis’s art (and worse, gossip) columns. But I suspect there’s a less complicated clarification: he became as soon as eschewing an art world that became as soon as too conservative, too former fashioned for his as a lot as date sensibilities. “We desire fewer heroes and more painters,” he suggested Town Discuss in 1913. “Factual men [are] crowded out by men who selected the profession in verbalize of being chosen by it.”
But by the level the zeitgeist of California caught as a lot as him, McComas became another time than a decade eradicated from the public hit upon. When the art history of the glean 22 situation became as soon as codified a protracted time later, his sort did now not fit neatly into the formalist analyses oldschool to construct ingenious genealogies — as became as soon as the wont of art historians within the first half of the 20th century. That his rhetorical operate within the motion is recently largely overpassed looks an sad final end result of this usual oversight.
Francis McComas passed away on the Monterey Clinical institution at 5: 15 A.M. on December 27, 1938. Two days later, in a modest ceremony attended by family and visitors, against the melancholic glow of the atmosphere sun, his ashes were buried within the shade of a cypress tree on a cliff overlooking the frosty waters of the Pacific. And the realm began the long, insensible course of of forgetting.
Earlier than the following decade became as soon as out, most of his closest allies within the early fight for California modernism — Mathews, Martinez, Putnam, Trask — were long past. By 1963, the final of his visitors from the PPIE, Eugen Neuhaus, had furthermore passed away. Though McComas’ establish would straggle along with the circulation through the pages of the art press over the following a protracted time, there were few left who understood his significance. When his wife, Gene, died in 1982, virtually none remained who had witnessed his triumphs firsthand.
By 2017, when our anecdote began, his gravesite had long since been lost to time. It had sat for years, perhaps a protracted time, overgrown and unvisited. I went shopping for it; I felt I owed that to him, to his legacy. And when, two years later, after scouring the historical account, satellite tv for pc photos, and digging through acres of California grime I if truth be told realized it, even the owner of the land inside which McComas rested became as soon as ignorant of his presence. It became as soon as that moment, more than any diverse, when I knew his anecdote must be taught.
Francis McComas didn’t are residing to see the paunchy high and breadth of the mountainous divaricating tree of California modernism. But if we brush off the overgrowth of history, if we dig deep sufficient, the spring he struck within the 1910s is gentle there. Aloof nourishing us, gentle sharing its magnificence and data and the exhilaration of discovery.