BY DIANE MANUEL
The chrysanthemum, iris, wisteria, cherry and plum blossoms that overwhelmed Theodore Wores on his first trip to Japan in 1885 kept reappearing in the artist's work throughout his life.
Girl with Rhododendrons, for example, shimmers with luminescent whites and pearly pinks that cast an Asian sheen on the California scene he painted in 1899. The work is hung prominently on a sunny wall at the Cantor Arts Center and serves as the welcoming focal point for a new exhibition of 30 Wores paintings. The World of Theodore Wores opened June 23 and will be on display in the Ruth Levison Halperin Gallery through August 29.
"If modernist painting is characterized by the intent to capture inner experience and consciousness, Wores was, by contrast, an orthodox, rather than an innovative painter," William H. Gerdts, an art historian at the City University of New York, writes in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition.
Gerdts also gave a public lecture on Wores' work at the center on June 24.
Mounted by Claire Perry, curator of American art, in honor of Dr. A. Jess Shenson, the show features paintings donated by Shenson and his late brother, Ben, as well as works on loan from Dr. Shenson's personal collection, the California Historical Society and the Spanierman Gallery in New York City.
Wores' work exemplifies the training of the 19th-century art academies of Europe, where attention was directed to form, color and light. His paintings draw on his study at the Munich Royal Academy and reflect his travels to Japan, Spain, Italy, Hawaii and Samoa. They also suggest the inroads of early 20th-century French impressionism.
The earliest work on display is Interior of St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice, which Wores painted during the summer of 1880, after several years of study in the Bavarian capital. In addition to the "exotic, fantastic domed architecture," Gerdts notes that the artist "included a nun kneeling in private prayer below the relief of the Madonna, thus adding to the religious solemnity of the composition. It is noteworthy that the nun directs her devotional attention and finds comfort in the shelter of a Byzantine Madonna, turning away from the altar, foreshortened in the background."
When Wores returned to the United States, he was appointed in 1884 as the first teacher at the newly established San Francisco Art Students' League. Although sketching trips with students took him south to Monterey and north to Marin County and the Russian River, Wores increasingly was drawn to the teeming life of the city's Chinatown. Gerdts notes that Wores studied lantern painters, flower buyers, fishmongers, shopkeepers, actors performing at the Chinese Theater, restaurant habitués, inhabitants of a joss house, opium smokers and Chinese funerals. Wores' sympathetic figure study of a Chinese Woman, dating from 1884, suggests that he had unusual access to a culture that had been exploited by Caucasian railroad magnates and was generally wary of outsiders.
The following year, in 1885, Wores traveled to Japan and spent three years immersing himself in art, religion and history the first American artist to live in that country for an extended period. In a series of articles he wrote for The Century Magazine during the 1880s and 1890s, Wores looked back on his experience in Japan and recalled that "the bright faces, happy dispositions, and general appearance of contentment I met with everywhere amidst sunny gardens and cheerful homes, and the scrupulous cleanliness of the people and their surroundings, combined at once to make a most delightful impression on my mind."
Ten of Wores' paintings from his Japan period are included in the exhibition, with subjects that range from A Lesson in Flower Arrangement and Theatre Street in Kyoto to The Samisen Player and Tea House, Kamakura.
"All [Wores' paintings] related to traditional mores and almost none reflected the gradual opening up of the country to Western innovations," Gerdts writes. "Wores identified Japanese physiognomy and costume, tea ceremonies and characteristic musical instruments; he captured street figures, such as candy sellers and rickshaw drivers; he was intrigued by courtship pursuit; he painted the landscape, including Mount Fuji; he was interested in the distinctive architecture; and he documented religious practices."
Significantly, the art historian adds that "the overarching theme that fascinated him above all was the rich floral environment."
That fascination would reappear in the studies of local environments Wores painted in Hawaii and Samoa, where he was particularly pleased to find native traditions largely intact. "Their customs are the same their fathers and grandfathers knew, and the conditions of life on the islands have not changed in a hundred years," Wores wrote of his visits to the islands of then German Samoa.
Regarding A Lagoon in Safuni, Savii, Samoa, Gerdts writes that "Wores' integration of the lone, half-naked young woman guiding her boat over the glistening, placid water, bordered by palm trees and distinctive thatched native dwellings, is remarkable." The intriguing oil, which is featured on the catalog cover, is striking for its diminutive size 22 by 29 inches and for the reflective quality of its tawny greens and beiges.
Wores devotion to floral environments resurfaced in the landscapes he painted when he finally returned home in 1903. He produced scores of canvases that portrayed blossoming fruit trees in the Santa Clara Valley, the flora of sand dunes near San Francisco and the lush garden surrounding his summer home in Saratoga. Included in the exhibition are A California Garden, The Garden of Villa Montalvo and Estate of James Phelan.
From 1907 to 1913 Wores served as dean of the San Francisco Institute of Art and became an outspoken member of the Society for Sanity in Art, a national organization dedicated to maintaining traditional standards in art.
In fact, Gerdts notes, Wores later would "bitterly denounce such radical departures from established forms and concepts" as Marcel Duchamp's fragmented Nude Descending a Staircase, which had debuted at the 1911 Armory Show in New York City and introduced European modernism to American audiences.
In 1927, discouraged by the conflict then raging between avant-garde and conservative artists, Wores withdrew to his home in Saratoga, where he spent the remaining years of his life painting orchards and hillsides, apparently content with creating art that evoked the simplicity and easy contentments of a world untouched by progress.
As Gerdts writes, "On his own, far
more traditional terms, he was an important and even an innovative
painter, who achieved not only national but even international
renown, and his place in the history of California and American art
deserves to be recognized." SR