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The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Celebrate New Acquisitions

San Francisco, August 2009--The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are pleased to announce several important acquisitions made earlier this year that are now on view in the permanent galleries of the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum.  New and on view at the Legion of Honor are a storied 1842 Sèvres tea service and Odilon Redon's 1901 Symbolist painting A Vase of Flowers.  New acquisitions at the de Young include a major American painting by Larry Rivers, The Last Civil War Veteran, 1961, and an early 20th-century harp from the Senofu people of Côte d'Ivoire, Africa.

Déjeuner chinois réticulé, 1842, at the LegionThe seventeen-piece Sèvres tea service, Déjeuner chinois reticule, was originally made on the orders of French King Louis-Philippe in 1842.  Inspired by Chinese porcelain, enamels and lacquer, this sumptuous French work of art complements the fine collection of European 19th-century paintings, decorative arts and sculpture at the Legion.

Made during an era when elaborate decoration and conspicuous craftsmanship were highly admired in Europe, Déjeuner chinois réticulé is decorated with scenes from Chinese life, bamboo handles, and delicate pierced work.  This elaborate execution was intended to show off the talents of the state Sèvres porcelain factory, and thus the prestige of France and French manufacturers. The most complex technique is the reticulation where the outer shell of the porcelain is pierced with delicate patterns.  Three craftsmen were required to execute this feature of the tea service.  Reticulation is so difficult to execute that by 1900 the Sèvres factory simplified the design so that it was easier to make.  Only around fifty sets of this kind were ever made, and the FAMSF set is one of the finest surviving examples.

The vessels from the set have been in San Francisco before, and their return to the city with the original tray is a curatorial coup.  More than a century after their creation, the Sèvres vessels, sans their octofoil tray, found their way to San Francisco after the Baron Philippe de Rothschild Collection sale in 1976.  A Parisian dealer spotted the vessels in San Francisco and returned them to France.  Years later, the owner of the original Sèvres tray, Pierre Bergé, bought the vessels in order to reassemble the set.  Finally, Déjeuner chinois réticulé was presented in Paris at Christie's Auction in Association with Pierre Bergé, Collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, the historic auction that is now being described as "the sale of the century."  FAMSF was the winning bidder. 

A Vase of Flowers, 1901, at the Legion

Through the generous bequest of Caroline H. Hume, FAMSF now owns a striking floral still life painting by French Symbolist master Odilon Redon (1840-1916).  A Vase of Flowers, 1901, handsomely represents Redon's belated interest in the brilliant colorism characteristic of flower painting.

An exact contemporary of the Impressionists, with whom he exhibited at the last Impressionist group show in 1886, Redon nonetheless pursued his own artistic path. Until the 1890s the artist concentrated his efforts on various graphic media, particularly lithography and charcoal drawings. The range of potentially moody, black and white contrasts inherent in such media was well suited to Redon's preference for imaginary images, often haunting in their unexpected juxtapositions and nightmarish fantasy.  

During the last decade of the 19th century, Redon revealed another side of his creative personality. This later body of work, executed in pastel and oil paint, depicts a range of subjects, but in a succession of floral still life compositions Redon produced some of his most lyrical works. His new decorative approach, emphasizing flat pattern and color, was the product of careful observation of nature filtered through the artist's imagination. The result, as with A Vase of Flowers, is magical. Redon said of such flower pieces, "Flowers [are] at the confluence of two river banks, that of representation and that of memory. It is the soil of art itself, the good earth of the real, harrowed and tilled by the spirit."

The Last Civil War Veteran, 1961, at the de Young

The Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions at FAMSF made possible the acquisition of The Last Civil War Veteran, 1961, by Larry Rivers (1923-2002).  Rivers-artist, musician and filmmaker-is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest and most influential pioneers of Pop Art in the United States.  His cycle of Civil War veteran paintings, including The Last Civil War Veteran, was the most ambitious extended series of his career.

For his mature Pop Art paintings, Rivers borrowed equally from both "good" and "bad" art, not to mention media not considered to be art at all, such as newspaper and magazine photographs and advertising.  The resulting works, which often balance unadulterated admiration with an ironic critique, helped to dissolve the barriers that had traditionally separated high art and popular culture.

The central image of The Last Civil War Veteran was appropriated from the mass media--specifically from an issue of Life magazine (May 11, 1959) that included an article entitled "The Last Survivor of the Civil War."  The accompanying full-page photograph depicts Walter Williams (1854-1959) lying in bed with a cigar in his mouth and his arms resting on a maritime-themed coverlet.  A Confederate dress uniform jacket and hat are hung on the wall behind him, flanked by huge Confederate and Union flags.  The photograph is clearly staged for dramatic effect.  

Shortly after the publication of the article but prior to the creation of the painting, it was revealed that Williams was an imposter.  Thus, the Life magazine photograph and Rivers' painting both raise complex questions regarding the definition of "truth" in history, and in the history of art.

West African harp, early 20th century, at the de Young

Music plays a large role in Senufo ceremonial and secular performance, just as musical instruments are central to the story of African art.  The acquisition of a West African harp (korikaariye) by FAMSF contributes to the illuminating breadth of work by the Senufo people on view at the de Young.  The harp is also the first stringed instrument in the African collection.

The sounding chamber of the harp is constructed from a hollow-out gourd covered with tanned cowhide and painted with a decorative design.  A carved female figurine sits atop the gourd base and originally served as the bridge to connect the four strings to the neck of the instrument.  The figurine is essentially a representation of idealized female beauty for the Senufo people.  She has an elaborate coiffure and facial detail and these enhancements make the object a major piece of sculpture as well as an effective musical instrument.

Instruments such as this very fine and rare example are frequently used in funeral and divination practices.  When used in divining practices, the harp would have been played to entice and invite the presence of spirits.  The visually compelling object and the sonorous tones of the harp praised and flattered the spirits, facilitating a successful intersession.  The figure arising from the gourd base may be a physical representation of the very spirit to whom the music is directed, and its central position may be a metaphysical reference to the role of the instrument and the diviner as a mediator between spirit and patron.