The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1993, Volume 39, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

100 Years of Art in San Diego: Selections from the Collection of the San Diego Historical Society.

By Bruce Kamerling. San Diego: San Diego History Center, 1991. Bibliography. Illustrations; some color, 108 pages. $25.00.

Reviewed by Janet Brody Esser, Professor of Latin American Studies, San Diego State University. Editor of Behind the Mask in Mexico (1988) and author of books and articles on Mexican art.

The spirit of a new century and a sense of lofty purpose motivated a group of artists in 1904 to incorporate themselves as the San Diego Art Association and dedicate themselves to “…the study and encouragement of art in all its higher branches.” Local artists were increasing in number and importance—in a still young, still small (about 35,000 inhabitants) San Diego, an obscure port city that had previously attracted only the occasional itinerant portrait painter. Career artists, many of them trained in Eastern and European academies and ateliers, took up residence in San Diego at the turn of the century, establishing guilds, galleries, and associations dedicated to the creation, exhibition, and collection of art.

Long before Europeans reached these shores there were artists in what is now San Diego. Successive groups of indigenous men and women fashioned intricate objects from feathers, abalone, and pigment. In the eighteenth century colonists from central Mexico drew upon Spanish and Moorish art to adorn their churches and homes. But it was not until three decades after California had achieved statehood that San Diego began to develop a community of resident artists. In 100 Years of Art in San Diego Bruce Kamerling catalogs works by fifty artists active from 1850 to 1950 and beyond with an emphasis on the period after 1885. Kamerling, the San Diego History Center’s Curator of Collections, has documented the changing tastes and preoccupations of a cultural elite.

Most of the artists represented would not be immediately recognized by today’s museum-goers while a few, such as Everett Gee Jackson, John Dirks, and the late Jean Swiggett were active contributors to our more immediate past. Charles Fries whose activities spanned fifty years until his death in 1940 and who was known as the “dean” of San Diego painters probably kindles little more than academic interest today. On the other hand, the sculptures of Donald Hord and the murals of Alfredo Ramos, teacher of Siquieros and Tamayo, are still familiar to many. Most of the works, executed in a variety of media, are competent examples of the various artistic movements—the “Ash Can School,” realism, cubism, regionalism, formalism, etc.—current in the decades covered by this book. Interest in Mexico, the social consciousness of the 30s, even surrealism (represented here by Ethel Greene), all had their impact on the work of San Diego’s artists whose directions were clearly congruent with those of the art world at large.

Fifteen of the fifty artists represented in the catalog were women, only one (Ramos) was Latino; the others all Caucasian. Two were San Diego natives (Klauber and Pierce), several were from Europe, and almost all received their artistic training elsewhere. In spite of the many styles in evidence, the catalog’s illustrations suggest more similarity than disparity among the artists who, for the most part, appear to be have shared a tendency to idealize and generalize their subjects. Very few of the works convey a sense of San Diego as a particular place in a particular time.

While recognizing the importance of evoking the historical context within which each artist worked, Kamerling, in an otherwise meticulously documented opus, has somehow neglected to convey this sense of the moment. A case in point is his discussion of the primary nexus for the flurry of activity that began in the last decade of the nineteenth century: the branch of the Theosophical Society’s Raja Yoga Art Academy, known as “Lomaland,” founded in Point Loma in 1897 by Katherine Tingley. Perhaps inclusion of journal or other documentary material would have helped to explain why Tingley chose San Diego as a site for one of her many Institutes, or why Theosophy should have drawn artists to this outpost from as far away as Hungary. Autobiographical material, readily available in the writings of Jackson for one, might have conveyed the sense of discovery and excitement that young artist and others as well experienced as they encountered the new ideas of this century. Perhaps, too, the parameters of “art” could be extended to include those who were not gallery and museum exhibitors. Were there no painters, sculptors, or even vernacular architects in the Latino and African American communities of San Diego? Their works also, if discovered, may prove to be the kinds of valuable historical documents Mr. Kamerling has sought so long and so diligently.