This is the last in a series of the murals of Coit Tower. There are more, unfortunately, they are not available to the public. If you are interested in seeing pictures of them, and learning more about Coit Tower and all of the murals, I highly suggest you search out Masha Zakheim’s Book Coit Tower.
This is the second of the murals in the elevator alcove, It is titled San Francisco Bay, North and is by Jose Moya Del Pino (1869-1969). The two young men represent Moya del Pino himself watching as fellow artist Otis Oldfield sketches what he sees below him. If one looks closely you can see the former prison on the island of Alcatraz. This too is oil on canvas.
Jose Moya del Pino was born in Priego, Spain. By 1907, Moya was studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, and associated with the Post-impressionists of Spain including Juan Gris and Diego Rivera. In the 1920’s he spent four years painting forty-one reproductions of Valasquez’s paintings in the El Prado in Madrid and Valencia. King Alfonso asked him to travel with the collection as a goodwill gesture when it went to the new world. The exhibit ended in San Francisco and Moya remained. Otis Oldfield was responsible for Moya being hired for the Coit Tower project. Later projects for Moya included a post office in Stockton as well as public art projects in Redwood City and San Rafael, California.
In the alcove, where visitors wait for the elevator are four more murals. This one is titled San Francisco Bay. This is an oil on canvas, and was painted in the artists studio. The two little girls are the artists, Otis Oldfield’s, daughters, Rhoda and Jayne. as they look down on the waterfront from their father’s Telegraph Hill studio. The larger island they are peering at is Yerba Buena Island. That is the island that the present day San Francisco Bay Bridge goes through. Treasure Island, which would have been attached on the left hand side of Yerba Buena, had not yet been built. Treasure Island was built (from fill dredged from the bay) for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939-1940.
Otis Oldfield was born in Sacramento in 1890. He came to San Francisco to enroll in Arthur Best’s private art school. In 1911, he went to Paris, where he stayed for sixteen years. In 1924, he began teaching at the California School of Fine Arts. He died in 1969.
The Coit Tower murals were painted during a particularly disruptive period in U.S. History. Depression related economic challenges led to much discussion about alternate forms of government. A four day general strike (Bloody Thursday) accompanied by widespread rioting in San Francisco triggered an eighty-three day 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike.
Coit Tower muralists protested and picketed at the tower when Rivera’s mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center in New York City was destroyed after he refused to change an image of Lenin in the painting.
The opening of Coit Tower and the display of its murals was delayed several months because of the controversial content of some of the paintings. Clifford Wight’s mural, which contained a hammer and sickle as one of a series of medallions illustrating the range of political philosophies existing in America, was removed before the opening.
This particular mural depicts the anger that the artists felt at the destruction of Rivera/Rockefeller mural and the general tenet of the time.
Ralph Stockpole is reading a headline concerning the destruction of the Diego mural. Col. Harold Mack (on the Washington appointed supervisory committee for the murals) looks on while artist John Langley Howard holds a crumpled newspaper while reaching for Marx’s Das Kapital. Joseph Danysh (later federal Art Project director) holds a paper about mortgage foreclosures. Above the window are three Hebrew letters that spell out the contents of the three books lying on their sides: Torah, Prophets and Wisdom Literature.
For those of you that are not familiar with the Rockefeller/Rivera controversy, here is a synopsis.
By 1930, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera has gained international favor for his lush and passionate murals. Inspired by Communist ideals and an intense devotion to his cultural heritage, Rivera creates boldly hued masterpieces of public art that adorn the municipal buildings of Mexico City. His outgoing personality puts him at the center of a circle of left-wing painters and poets, and his talent attracts wealthy patrons, including Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. In 1932, she convinces her husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to commission a Rivera mural for the lobby of the soon-to-be-completed Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Flush from successes in San Francisco and Detroit, Rivera proposes a 63-foot-long portrait of workers facing symbolic crossroads of industry, science, socialism, and capitalism. The painter believes that his friendship with the Rockefeller family will allow him to insert an unapproved representation of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin into a section portraying a May Day parade. The real decision-making power lies with the Center’s building managers, who abhor Rivera’s propagandistic approach. Horrified by newspaper articles attacking the mural’s anti-capitalist ideology, they order Rivera to remove the offending image. When Rivera refuses, offering to balance the work with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the opposing side, the managers pay his full fee, bar him from the site, and hide the mural behind a massive drape. Despite negotiations to transfer the work to the Museum of Modern Art and demonstrations by Rivera supporters, near midnight, on February 10th, 1934, Rockefeller Center workmen, carrying axes, demolish the mural. Later, Rivera recreates the frescoes in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, adding a portrait of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in a nightclub. Rivera never works in the United States again, but continues to be active, both politically and artistically, until his death in 1957.
Mallete Dean was one of the more prolific painters of government sponsored murals in Northern California. Born in Washington in 1907, he studied at the California School of Fine Arts. He was a furniture designer, decorator of books and graphic artist, for many years he created labels for the California wine industry. Other works include the orchard scene in the Sebastapol, California Post Office. He died in San Francisco in 1975.
These two are Surveyor and Ironworker. There are three windows between these two figures. Over the central window Wight painted a bridge, which had the NRA Eagle in the center. Over the right hand window he stretched a segment of chain, and in the circle appeared the words In God We Trust, then over the last window he placed a section of woven cable and a circle framing a hammer and sickle, and the words United Workers of the World. This all proved to be entirely too controversial and it was removed before the tower opened in 1934.
Clifford Wight was born in England in 1900. He and Ralph Stackpole worked with Diego Rivera in the 1920’s. Wight came to San Francisco with Rivera to work as an assistant on Rivera’s murals at the San Francisco Art Institute. He also worked with Rivera on his Detroit mural. Diego Rivera painted a portrait of Wight into one of the frescos in the Secretariat of Education in Mexico City. He returned to England and died in 1966.
Mikhail Arnautoff (1896-1979) came to San Francisco via Mexico where he too worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera. He attended the California School of Fine Arts, studying with Ralph Stackpole, fellow artist. He returned to his native Russia in the 1960s. Other works of his include frescoes in the Military Chapel at the Presido and three lunettes in the Anne Bremer Library at the San Francisco Art Institute. He taught in the art department of Stanford University.
Fellow artist Fred Olmsted and his assistant Tom Hayes
Fellow artist John Langley Howard holding a pitchfork
Fellow artist Lucien Labaudt showering a cow
These further symbols of machine force include a man at the controls of a hydroelectric plant, a surveyor, steam shovel, and oil derricks. Notice that he had to work around not only a door, but a delightful art deco light fixture
This law library has some interesting book titles when one looks closely. There are the usual Civil, Penal and Moral Codes, but also the Law of Fresco Painting, Counterfeiting, and Laws on Seduction. A fun one is Martial Law by Brady, he was the VFW caretaker who watched over the project and lived in the Tower’s apartment. The man on the left with the pipe is thought to be, patron of the arts, William Gerstle.
The artist on this panel was George Albert Harris (1913-1991). Harris was one of the youngest artist to work on Coit Tower. He was a student at the California School of Fine Art and later painted a mural in San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce building. He was a professor in the art department of Stanford University.
This is the beginning of a series on the WPA murals of Coit Tower. When the Great Depression hit, like everyone, artists were not finding work. George Biddle, a prominent lawyer turned successful artist, a member of a socially prominent family from Philadelphia, and most importantly, a Groton and Harvard classmate of Franklin Roosevelt, went to the President with an idea.
He suggested that America hire American artists to paint murals depicting the social ideals of the new administration as well as the American way of life, on the walls of public buildings.
The WPA, created by an order from the President, was funded by Congress with passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 on April 8, 1935.
Dr. William Heil, a new immigrant from Germany and the director of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park was chosen to select and supervise “worthy artists”. It was also Dr. Heil who suggested the medium of frescoes for the project.
According to Masha Zakheims book Coit Tower. there were few interpersonal problems; the “purists” created their preliminary sketches and layouts in their own studio. The artists put in their thirty hours a week as they chose, often working into the small hours to meet the demands of the rapidly drying plaster. Surprised at their diligence it was reported to Washington D.C. that the artists at Coit Tower were very moral and conscientious, not drunken, promiscuous, and orgiastic as some had predicted a group of Bohemians would be.
Fresco (plural either frescos or frescoes) is any of several related mural painting types, executed on plaster on walls, ceilings or any other type of flat surface. The word fresco comes from the Italian word affresco which derives from the Latin word for “fresh”.
To understand Coit Tower you must first understand Lillie Hitchcock Coit. A nice tale is told here from the Virtual San Francisco History Museum written by: By Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief, San Francisco Fire Department.
One of the most unusual personalities ever connected with our Fire Department was a woman. She was Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who was destined not only to become a legend but to attain that eminence long before her life ended.
Coit Tower was built in 1933. The concrete tower was constructed by Arthur Brown Jr., best known for City Hall. The tower is adorned with one simple ornament by Robert Bordman Howard, the phoenix, symbolizing San Francisco’s repeated growth after its many fires.
The structure is made of unpainted reinforced concrete. Contrary to urban legend, the building was not made to resemble a fire hose.
There is a small studio apartment on the second floor of the tower, which was originally used as lodging for the structure’s caretaker.
If you are interested in learning more about Coit Tower, I highly recommend Masha Zakheim’s book Coit Tower, San Francisco Its History and Art
This statue of Christopher Columbus sits in the center of the parking lot for Coit Tower. The figure of Columbus, the famous Italian explorer, gazes out over San Francisco Bay standing on a concrete pedestal in the center of a circular flower bed, bordered by a marble ring. Dedicated on October 12, 1957, the newspapers of the time recorded that “Singers, sailors from American and Italian navies, and spectators stood in reverent silence as 12-foot statue of Christopher Columbus is unveiled today on Telegraph Hill. The sculpture piece was the work of Italy’s Vittorio de Colbertaldo. Columbus Day weekend will be highlighted here tomorrow with a parade.”
Little in known of Count Vittorio di Colbertaldo (Forlì 1902- Verona 1979), other than he was a member of, and official sculptor of Il Duce’s bodyguard.
One stone on the ring to the left of Columbus is from the dedication ceremonies and includes a message from Pope Pius XII reading:
PRESENTED TO THE PEOPLE OF SAN FRANCISCO
BY THE COLUMBUS MONUMENT COMMITTEE
WITH GRATEFUL ACKNOWLEDGMENT
TO ALL THE DONORS
WHO MADE THIS MEMORIAL POSSIBLE
INCLUDING THE CITY OF GENOA
FOR THE DONATION OF THE PEDESTAL
AND THE MARINI FAMILY
FOR THE GIFT OF THE MARBLE RING
VITTORIO di COLBERTALDO
DESIGNER and SCULPTOR