The Harald Wagner collection of Teotihuacan murals is the largest and most important outside of Mexico. The murals are remarkable for their quality, condition, and breadth. Secretly removed from their site in the 1960s, they were left to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in a surprise bequest by Harald Wagner, an energetic San Francisco art lover who had spent years living in Mexico.
This surprise gift required complicated negotiations and collaboration with Mexico’s government and cultural institutions. The resulting partnership stands as a model of institutional responsibility in the sensitive area of restoring lost cultural patrimony.
The discovery of the murals’ provenance at Teotihuacan by René Millon, some 20 years after their looting, is a fascinating story. The murals are of extraordinary scholarly interest because of their subject matter and place within the Teotihuacan stylistic canon. Although scholars have not yet been able to establish the existence of an organized system of writing for the city, many of the Wagner murals bear important glyphs that will provide new and valuable evidence.
Here, you will find excerpts from the landmark publication Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, a selected bibliography, and scholarly articles related to this important collection.
Who was Harald Wagner?
Harald J. Wagner (also known as Harold, although the former was his preferred spelling) was the only child of Charles Jacob Wagner and Amelia Wagner. He was born in the small farming town of Falls City, Oregon, in 1903. Very little is known of his early life, although it is believed that he was strictly reared. After completing high school he attended the University of Oregon at Eugene, and studied English, civil engineering, architecture, and music, ultimately graduating with a degree in architecture. By 1927 he moved to San Francisco. Even as a young man, he is described by friends and relatives as having had great wit, charm, and style, added to a strong aesthetic sense and bohemian inclinations.
In San Francisco, Wagner obtained a job as a draftsman in the prestigious architectural offices of Bliss & Faville. At some point he worked his way up to the position of office keeper, in time becoming a protégé of William B. Faville, who was to become a strong influence. Faville, in his fifties, was a mature and accomplished artist as well as an architect. He greatly admired the work of Arthur and Lucia Mathews, important artists of the California decorative style who had designed fine custom furnishings and decorations for Bliss & Faville.
Inspired by California’s many natural panoramas in Carmel and the Sierras, Faville and Wagner traveled together to sketch and paint. Wagner’s beautiful flat-patterned watercolor landscapes show that he had absorbed the Mathewses’ aesthetics. Through Faville during the 1930s Wagner actually met Arthur and Lucia Mathews. Under Faville’s strong and sophisticated influence, Wagner developed his enthusiasm for the arts and for living a life of taste and style. He exhibited paintings at Gump’s, the Bohemian Club, the San Francisco Museum of Art at the Civic Center, and the Walker Galleries, Inc., in New York. When Faville died in 1947 Wagner must have felt a profound loss. Faville had named Wagner as executor of his estate and, and in later years, in accordance with Faville’s wishes Wagner spent considerable time and effort collecting the paintings and decorative arts of Arthur and Lucia Mathews.
In the same year Faville died, Harald Wagner became a civil service employee on Treasure Island, serving as assistant to public works, architecture, and engineering, a position he would hold for about ten years. Part of his job involved rebuilding ships that came to San Francisco after the war. During these years he also made quite a lot of money through renovating buildings. He was a clever man with boundless energy to buy buildings, work with friends to restore the buildings, and sell them for a profit, instinctively loving to beautify and re-create. He also had great sympathy for struggling artists and tried to do what he could to support them.
In the mid-1950s Wagner made his first trip to Mexico. Loving the country and its people, he traveled more frequently, a pattern that continued until his death. He studied and became fluent in Spanish. As in San Francisco, he surrounded himself with artist friends of all kinds, collecting pre-Hispanic art, the watercolors of Julia López, and Spanish colonial paintings. He purchased an eighteenth-century hacienda in the mountains of Jalisco (at Bolaños), which had been substantially damaged during the Revolution. Its restoration engrossed him, and he carefully documented the process through photographs. When finished, the hacienda became a local showplace, even visited by the governor of the state. Harald Wagner lived there for part of each year, but he maintained a home in San Francisco and constantly moved back and forth between both residences.
Although Wagner’s hacienda was nowhere near Teotihuacan, he was offered the opportunity in Mexico to acquire the Teotihuacan murals soon after they had been unearthed. It is easy to understand why he might have become immediately captivated by them on an aesthetic level, and more than willing to overlook the physical challenges of their great bulk and weight.
Wagner’s devotion to the California decorative style through his friendships with the Mathewses and Faville may have been a key factor in his zeal for Teotihuacan murals. Although the appearance of their work is utterly different, the precepts of the artists of the California decorative style and of the ancient Teotihuacan murals were in some ways compatible. Both groups of artists shared a keen love of the decorative and an interest in flat patterns and harmonized color relationships, strongly emphasizing allegory, abstraction, personification and symbolism. Both shared a love of natural forms, especially floral motifs, and of the exotic. Moreover, both shared the primary consideration of architectural context in planning a composition, as well as a concern for decorative frames or borders. Perhaps when Harald Wagner saw his first group of mural fragments, the art form itself was something he intrinsically admired and understood. Arthur Mathews had been known in his time as California’s greatest muralist, and Harald Wagner himself had even created a mural in the 1930s.
Certainly, Wagner’s training as an architect and his tremendous enjoyment from working with his hands must have rendered the crumbling walls a challenge not at all intimidating. According to his friends he used to enjoy rebuilding immense diesel engines and is also said to have built musical instruments. He must have appreciated the murals as pieces of architecture, seeing their decorative and dramatic possibilities, as few others could. Friends surmise that he may have collected the broken fragments with a strong sense of propriety and rectitude — a need to take something, improve upon it, and make it right. It is an interesting coincidence that Wagner must have been offered the Teotihuacan murals just after he had successfully completed years of negotiation to house the Mathews collection in museums in Oakland and Santa Barbara. The murals may have given him a new purpose, one supremely compatible with previous goals and experiences.
The details of Wagner’s purchase of the murals are not well understood for obvious reasons, but he left written receipts that indicate he had purchased the murals on four separate occasions, the first three transactions (August 1963, January 1965, April 1966) taking place in Mexico, the fourth (June 1968) in the United States. Several friends insist that he was not directly involved in the looting, but an explanation is needed for the extensive number of small carefully preserved fragments and crumbs that were also part of the Wagner collection. Perhaps his suppliers understood his penchant for order and attempted to gather smaller fragments. Or perhaps the murals were poorly packed and arrived broken in San Francisco.
Apparently it was Wagner’s plan to sell the murals once they were assembled. He applied a simply polyvinyl acetate adhesive to some of the crumbling backing, filled cracked or missing areas with plaster, overpainted or waxed some original surfaces, and finally mounted some of the large or most dramatic fragments by placing them in a wood-frame bed supported underneath by chicken wire, jute, and a thick layer of plaster of paris, which he then wedged with a thick corkboard infill about one-half inch lower than the mural surface. Despite the cumbersome mounting techniques, Wagner had the good sense to use a relatively restrained approach to restoration, to preserve the murals intact, and to employ material currently in conservation use at the time (Bone 1986).
Between 1967 and 1972 Wagner tried to sell the murals to various museums — including an approach to what he thought was the de Young Museum — but he was never able to find a buyer. In addition to the difficulties mentioned earlier, public consciousness about looted sites and stolen art treasures, especially acute after the early 1970s, had significantly increased. In an effort to sell the murals Wagner seems to have first approached several Bay Area museums, then contacted other museums in the United States, and finally offered the murals to museums as far away as Japan and the Middle East. It does not appear that he advocated selling portions of the collection separately, for to do so would contradict all his earlier efforts. Moreover, he never did complete the assembly of all the fragments, probably for the simple reason that he realized most of them did not fit together after all. There was no hope of putting them back into a larger context. In addition, the murals took up tremendous space in the gallery or workrooms of his residence.
Towards the end of his life, Wagner resolutely stipulated in a holographic will that the “Mexican murals” in his possession be donated to “the de Young Museum,” and that the museum pay the taxes and the substantial costs of administering his estate (see section I). He loved San Francisco and must have felt that the murals belonged in San Francisco’s City and County Museum. Two days before his seventy-third birthday Harald Wagner died in San Francisco. The cause of death is unknown, although friends attribute his death to kidney or liver problems somehow associated with frequent illnesses he acquired in his beloved Mexico.
— Excerpted from Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, 1988
Where did the murals come from?
The site of Teotihuacan, which is about an hour north of Mexico City, was a single large city built on a grid plan. Begun before A.D. 1, with a population estimated at 40,000, Teotihuacan lasted for over seven hundred years. At its peak, 100,000 to 200,000 people lived within the city’s boundaries, roughly eight square miles. Throughout its history, Teotihuacan was the most populous and influential city in Mesoamerica. Although we can only reconstruct its urban plan, Teotihuacan must have had innovative economic, social, political, religious, and military organization. In A.D. 500, Teotihuacan was the size of seventeenth-century Paris.
After the collapse of Teotihuacan in A.D. 750, the city’s formidable pyramids awed even the Aztecs. Because the temple complexes were so huge, the Aztecs believed they could only have been built by the gods, calling the site Teotihuacan, “the Place of the Gods” in Nahuatl.
The largest structures at Teotihuacan, the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, containing respectively about one million and one-quarter million cubic meters of building material, were built in the first century A.D. Teotihuacan’s dramatic rise to prominence can be attributed to many factors, including agriculture, obsidian production, long-distance trade routes, and military prowess.
It is unknown why the culture of Teotihuacan ultimately collapsed. The years after A.D. 600 were associated with major changes in the political and economic situation of Mesoamerica. The most striking of these changes was the growth of many new, aggressively expansionist centers at war with one another. The emergence of these new centers is possibly related to changing patterns in trade. Teotihuacan leadership may have been baffled by these changes and unable to chart a beneficial course of action. The highly integrated and corporate structure posited for the city, perhaps once an advantage, may have become a disadvantage in the seventh-century world of aggressive conflict between many highly expansionistic centers.
The sudden flood of new archaeological and art historical evidence furnished by the appearance of the Wagner murals provided the impetus for the discovery of the buildings from which they had originally been removed. The number of murals involved together with the exceptionally fine quality of many of them and the unique subject matter forcibly raised the question of provenance with new urgency. Where had all these paintings come from? How could the walls of so many ancient buildings have been chiseled out and removed without coming to the attention of someone in authority?
In 1984, with funds granted by the Fine Arts Museums Foundation, René Millon traveled to Teotihuacan in the hope of locating the original site for the Wagner murals. His team established in survey and excavation the provenance of six of the seven groups of paintings in the Wagner collection in the eastern part of the Barrio of the Looted Murals. The only group for which provenance was not definitively located was the Feathered Feline and Bird Border. They were also unable to find evidence for the provenance of two other major murals, the Coyote with Sacrificial Knife and the Coyotes and Deer. Five of the six sites surveyed and explored through excavation comprised a single large compound, which was named Techinantitla.
It now seems virtually certain that the walls of Techinantitla along with another site, Tlacuilapaxco, were the source of all of the Wagner murals, including those for which no direct evidence yet has been found. More than this, it also appears highly probable that all the other Teotihuacan murals that have appeared in museums and private collections since 1960 came from these two compounds as well. Many are companions of murals in the Wagner collection; others are linked to Wagner murals by stylistic details, shared glyphs, and other elements. This means that these two ancient buildings are the probable source of the majority of the looted murals from Teotihuacan.
Techinantitla, a single, very large compound, was at least 75 by 95 meters. The five sites lie to the north of Tlacuilapaxco, the compound from which many of the Maguey Ritual paintings were taken. The size of the compound makes it one of the largest structures of the apartment-compound type known at Teotihuacan. Of course, it is possible that it was not a residential compound, but rather a public or semi-public building. Techinantitla is the Nahua name for the land on which the complex is located.
The principal temple associated with Techinantitla covers an area of 12 by 20 meters. This makes it larger by several meters than any other temple so far found in an apartment compound. It seems likely that Techinantitla was the principal compound in its barrio, which raises the question of whether its main temple served all the people of the barrio. Other possibilities are that it was the main temple for an even larger entity, or for a cult that transcended the limits of the barrio. Another possibility is that it was directly linked to cults associated with the Pyramid of the Moon.
— Excerpted from Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, 1988
Collaborative conservation project with Mexico
Harald Wagner died in 1976, stipulating in a handwritten will that his collection of wall paintings from the ancient city and ceremonial center of Teotihuacan, Mexico, be left to the de Young Museum of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The Wagner Bequest, completely unknown to the Museums until after the donor’s death, consisted of more than seventy fragments (ranging in size from a few inches in length to fourteen feet) that date to A.D. 400 – 700. Each fragment is composed of a thick backing of volcanic ash, a thin layer of lime, and a painted surface with elaborate images of priest-deities, animals in ritual activity, warrior-birds, feathered serpents, and flowering trees with emblems.
Because of the size and importance of the donation and ethical issues regarding cultural patrimony, the Museums approached officials in Mexico to discuss a cooperative program of conservation and care, and the voluntary return of at least fifty percent of the murals to Mexico upon completion of conservation. After several years of negotiations, an agreement between the Fine Arts Museums and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History was executed in December 1981, providing for the joint conservation, exhibition, and disposition of this important collection. The collaborative conservation of the mural fragments represented an important first step in effectuating the terms of this historic and unprecedented agreement.
Although wall paintings were a major art form at Teotihuacan, little is known about them. We do not know if Wagner ever saw the murals in his collection before they were removed from their walls at Teotihuacan. The murals were crudely cut from the walls of ancient living compounds during the 1960s, with no attempt to document their removal scientifically or collect all the pieces. While groups of fragments are certainly interrelated, they cannot be reunited to form complete walls.
The conservation work needed to make the murals available for enjoyment, study and display lasted many years, after which point a fully illustrated publication of all the murals was published. The trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco voted to voluntarily return more than half of the murals to Mexico, in accordance with the agreement. This return was celebrated in a special exhibition at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City in 1986.
Bibliography and related articles
Berlo, Janet Catherine. Ed. Art, Ideology, and the City of Teotihuacan: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 8th and 9th October 1988. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1992.
Berrin, Kathleen, Ed. Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988.
Berrin, Kathleen and Esther Pasztory, Eds. Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1993.
Carlson, John B. Venus-regulated Warfare and Ritual Sacrifice in Mesoamerica: Teotihuacan and Cacaxtla “Star Wars” Connection. College Park, Maryland: Center for Archaeoastronomy, 1991.
Carrasco, David, et al. Eds. Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002.
Headrick, Annabeth. The Teotihuacan Trinity: The Sociopolitical Structure of an Ancient Mesoamerican City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.
Kubler, George. The Iconography of the Art of Teotihuacan. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, 1967.
Linne, Sigvald. Archaeological Researches at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Stockholm: Victor Pettersons Bokindustriaktiebolag, 1934.
Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. Teotihuacan: The City of the Gods. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1990.
Miller, Arthur G. The Mural Painting of Teotihuacan. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, 1973.
Millon, René. The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan: 1959 Investigations by René Million, Bruce Drewitt, and James A. Bennyhoff. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1965.
Pasztory, Esther. Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
Sempowski, Martha Lou and Michael W. Spence. Mortuary Practices and Skeletal Remains at Teotihuacan. Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1994.
Sugiyama, Saburo. Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Berrin, Kathleen. "Hands Across the Border." Proceedings, The Care and Preservation of Ethnological Materials Symposium1986: 90–96
Berrin, Kathleen. "San Francisco, Mexico, and the Teotihuacan Murals." Museum International September 2007: 9–21
Bone, Lesley. "Teotihuacan Mural Project." Western Association of Art Conservation Newsletter September 1986: 2–7
Russell, Ron. "Looted: How an eccentric architect with a penchant for pre-Columbian relics rocked the antiquities world and became the de Young Museum's most mysterious donor." SF Weekly August 30, 2006: 17–23