Last updated: January 5, 2018
(A Section of the wall in the Maritime Museum)
As I walk into the lobby of the Maritime Museum, I am greeted by a vast mural that fills the entire physical and unconscious space. The sound of jazz music permeates across time, and echoes through my mind. Soon after, the sound of waves that crash onto the beach of aquatic park transform into the low murmur of a crowded bar in the heart of Paris. This encapsulated memory creates a space that is filled with familiar faces and fond memories. The sentiment does not last long as the whole scene is submerged underwater, and columns of ruins of a long forgotten civilization rise up from beneath. This new City of Atlantis has an uneasy history behind it, almost as though it is haunted by echoes of a forgotten past. These two realities swirl together until my imagination returns me to the present day San Francisco.
(Famous Artists, Surrealists, Modernists, Painters, Photographers, Poets, and the Avant-Garde would all be a part of Hilaire Hiler’s inner circle.)
Why was I transported to Paris? And why jazz music? Because the muralist was evoking his own experiences through the artwork. Hilaire Hiler (1898 – 1966) was an American from St. Paul, Minnesota and found himself attending various art schools up and down the eastern seaboard. While studying in New York City, an opportunity arose to head to Paris as a correspondent for a film, art, and dance magazine called Shadowland. Later in his time in Paris, Hiler and the author, Henry Miller opened a bar called The Jockey which became the artistic hang out for many surrealists, avant-garde, poets, painters, and expatriates. Many of those who would frequent this establishment would become his friends and associates, such as Joan Miro, Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, and countless others. It was these experiences and interactions that influenced Hiler’s fascination with color, design, and abstraction which defined his style of art. He experimented with muralism in The Jockey, which became so popular that he was commissioned to paint several murals in and around Paris. You couldn’t have a popular bar in Paris unless you had your very own Hilaire Hiler Mural decorating the interior.
(The Jockey with its cast of characters, Hilaire was known to entertain patrons by playing the piano with a monkey on his back.)
Hiler’s study of color became a fascination for him. The color surrounding the interior spaces of the bar were just as influential to the unconscious as the musicians playing in the bar. Alongside the poet Anais Nin, he studied at the Sorbonne with psychologist Otto Rank who was famous for being a colleague and editor of Sigmund Freud. Through these studies, Hiler developed his theory on color and color combinations. His theories suggest that each color corresponded to an emotion that affected the viewer psychologically. These theories were implemented in Paris with scenes of the Wild West and various other American imagery. He returns to the United States in the 1930s, and in 1936 and is assigned as the artistic director for Works Project Administration’s Aquatic Park in San Francisco. It’s here that his theory is displayed in full force in his largest project that he completed.
Hiler was obsessed with color and this is an example of his “Color Wheel,” a prismatic display which would extend into an infinite spectrum of color combinations. Each color was said to express a psychological emotion.
Walking into the lobby of the Maritime Museum is like diving into a vast underwater landscape. Hues of blue, red, and grey flow across the room, with a bio-diversity that swims in infinite circles -just like those right outside the museum’s walls. The colors in the lobby match the corresponding colors of both the bay, the hills, and the surrounding buildings to further create this dichotomy of art and realism. Quite overtly, there is something else going on. The buildings that are submerged are reminiscent of the story of Atlantis – a great lost, destroyed civilization. Columns, staircases, archways, and turned statues fill the landscape of the hall. This speaks to the artistic liberty and expression of the times.
Already in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, there was a huge reactionary movement toward the avant-garde, surrealism, and modernism. In the aftermath of the First World War, those who had survived the mechanical carnage and traumatized by war began to find their voice in expressing the inexpressible. Artists from both France and Germany found solidarity to piece together what they had just experienced. Hiler, during his travels throughout Europe, would have interacted with these artists and felt their experiences. However, with the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933, there suddenly was an attack on modernism in the new Government. Schools were shut down, professors were fired from public universities, pieces were taken down and destroyed, and artists were shamed for their emotions and expression. There was this mass exodus of artists fleeing Germany at this time, many of them found refuge in the already flourishing artistic scene in Paris where Hiler had already established himself. When Hiler began his work in San Francisco, he painted his own expression for the world to see. Because for artists like Hiler, the concept of a lost or destroyed civilization was very real, because it was happening right before their eyes. Artwork and free expression that came out of the 1930s had this fear that something important was being lost.
Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war mural Guernica. Painted during the Spanish Civil War after Fascists and Nazi air forces bombed the town of Guernica, killing an estimated 1,000 civilians.
As I walk into the lobby of the Maritime Museum, there is a sense of great joy and great sorrow. The mural was painted in a style similar to Hiler’s murals in Paris. But if one were to go back to the original location of The Jockey club, they wouldn’t find the mural or any mural done by Hiler for that matter. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, they continued their systematic destruction of artwork they considered degenerate, and Hiler’s bar, which was a major center for artists and bohemians, was no exception. One of the few remaining connections to that past exist in murals that surround the lobby of the Maritime Museum. Perhaps it’s through the waves underneath the water, the sound of jazz music emanates from across time to anyone wanting to listen.
(Design for a Mural, Aquatic Park Bathhouse. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)