Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Arts + Culture Art San Francisco, beautifully Expo'd

San Francisco, beautifully Expo’d


A slew of exhibits and events take us back to 1915’s Pan-Pacific International Exposition. 

48 Hills: Big Week
“Jewel City”: A view of the Panama-Pacific international Exposition of 1915, at the de Young.

By Marke B. 

ART LOOKS San Francisco is getting thrown back, way back, lately: 100 years back, in fact, to the glorious Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915 that simultaneously celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and announced to the world that San Francisco had risen like a fine-plumaged Art Nouveau phoenix from the Great Quake flames of 1906.

Yes, stunningly kitschy Exposition remnant The Palace of Fine Arts been burning up the online news cycle, as our ever-privatizing Rec and Parks Commission attempts to monetize it with “luxury” hotels and spas (and nary a nod to the “fine arts” still being presented in its theater to thousands). But a ton of great events and shows courtesy of the California Historical Society and other local institutions observe the centenary of the “world’s fair” spectacle in more civic-minded style.

48 Hills: PPIE
Commemorative Expo events include the exhibit “The Grandeur of Great Labor: The Building of the Panama Canal and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition” at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, through February.

The de Young Museum’s grand “Jewel City” exhibit — a 200-work sampling of the more than  11,000 pieces of art on display at the fair — as well as its accompanying “Prints at the Fair” show (70 paper works showing the range of the thousands displayed), will suffuse any SF-lover, and art-lover in general,  with a warm, golden glow.

William de Leftwich Dodge’s enormous, explosively pastel mural “Atlantic and Pacific” — “an allegory, with processions of Western and Eastern nations converging toward a muscular colossus who represents the labor that produced the Panama canal”  welcomes visitors just as it did in the days when allegorical murals were usually the only peek you got at half-naked, muscular colossi. (See a video of its recent reconstruction/installation here.)

48 Hills: Big Week
The Garden Railway at the Conservatory of Flowers celebrates the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Photo by Nina Sazevich.

From the colossal to the exquisite, in the form of a beloved annual model train display, with fascinating flora. The Garden Railway at the Conservatory of Flowers is back, starting Thu/12 and running through April 10, and great for kids and adults who love things so neat they want to eat them. “In an enchanting display landscaped with hundreds of dwarf plants and several water features, model trains wend their way through the festive fairgrounds, zipping past whimsical recreations of the Exposition’s most dazzling monuments and amusements, including the Tower of Jewels, Palace of Fine Arts, and more.” So cute/cool!

As for the cascade of events marking the centenary — from a major exploration at the Oakland Museum of how the Panama Canal affected aboriginal Pacific cultures to a commemorative December 4 “closing day” celebration that w ill extinguish the Ferry Building‘s “1915” sign — check out the California Historical Society’s complete listings.

Side note: One of my favorite things to come out of the Pan-Pacific Expo is the incredible fantasy dreamworks of Marin native and visionary architect Achilles Gildo Rizzoli (1896-1981). While never known in his lifetime, his hallucinatory, ecstatic drawings of impossible, Babel-sized buildings have been elevated as prime examples of outsider art. After having witnessed the PPIE, Rizzoli created (and perhaps mentally inhabited) his own imaginary, parallel universe “expeau” — YTTE, or Yield To Total Elation. While SF now seems full of “visionaries” tempting us toward total elation of the techno-womb kind, Rizzoli opened himself to the towering divine.




Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at), follow @supermarke on Twitter.


  1. I think it would be more correct to designate the Palace of Fine Arts as proto-kitsch. The hostile reaction against the Beaux-Arts style of architecture that emerged after the war crystallized the concept: naive optimism, faith in progress, its attempt to embrace, interpret and synthesize the entire history of western civilisation (from an architectural perspective), and its literalism (to make build a library decorate it with Muses, to make it a courthouse add Justitia).

    Maybe unsurprisingly, SF was one of the last hold-outs of bad taste, with the War Memorial Opera House being the last major public building to be built in the Beaux-Arts style.

    But apart from kitsch, the fall of the Beaux Arts into ridicule, represented a broader cultural shift, which was the demise of serious art and the corresponding lack of taking art seriously. The fundamental philosophy of the Beuax Arts excludes commercialism from civic spaces, because it assumes those space are important community assets and how they are designed and even what they are called matters. In that respect the Pannama-Pacific exhibit represents a snapshot of the final days of the long 19th century at just the moment before modernism began its major program of transvaluation of all artistic values.

  2. The Palace of Fine Arts is hardly historic barely 100 years old. It is an ugly facade trying to copy a mismatch of ancient European styles. Not sure I want a Hotel there, but a nice park or a modern museum housing art would be preferable in a modern forward looking city.

  3. I HEARD THE NEXT PUBLIC MEETING TO DISCUSS THE FATE OF THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS PLANNING IS THURSDAY, NOV 19, 10AM AT SF CITY HALL IN ROOM 416. Please go if you care at all about the proposal that has been put forth to turn it into a global arts center featuring the world dance community. This proposal is currently not one of the three selected proposals, even though over 13,000 people have just signed an online petition to make the Palace a cultural center. We would like to ask them to put this proposal back on the table. World Arts West has put on the Ethnic Dance Festival for 38 years and works with 450 Bay Area dance companies. They would like to have continual dance/arts performances, exhibits, workshops, and expose children and adults to world dance experience. They would also like to send cultural dance ambassadors out in the world to find dances and bring dancers back, so that the center would serve the world. This is the most creative and exciting proposal for the space! It would also be accompanied by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse organizing a sustainable food set-up there. Obviously financial details will need to be worked out, but I think that can be accomplished in a creative manner if everyone figures out possible solutions together.

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