After the Wild SF tour, we stretched our legs by climbing to the top of a pretty steep hill to see some more murals – this time on the inside of the Coit Tower. Most people go to the Coit Tower to get the elevator to the top so that they can see some good views of San Francisco. It’s true that you get some pretty good views up there, but in my opinion, most people are missing a trick by not paying more attention to the murals in the lobby at the bottom, which celebrate ordinary working life in California at the time that they were painted: 1933-34.
I have to admit that when I first looked at the paintings, I wasn’t particularly interested and I actually completely ignored them and started to read the guidebook instead. I had a cursory glance and decided that they weren’t very well drawn and quite childish looking. Nothing much to see here I thought.
The guidebook kindly informed me that I was being a bit of an idiot – the paintings were actually very interesting, so I decided to pay a bit more attention. It turns out that the murals had been created by 27 different artists and in fact the deceptively simplistic style was intentional and not simply a consequence of lack of artistic talent. I also read in the guidebook that because the murals celebrated ordinary workers, they were considered to be communist images and caused quite a lot of controversy when they were first unveiled. I thought this was hilarious, and a very American reaction, especially considering that the murals include stockbrokers and lawyers alongside farmers, fishermen and miners.
What I really love about them is that each fresco celebrates gives us an insight into the social history of the 1930s. It’s striking that, even though it shows California less than a century ago, so much has changed in that time. You can see horse drawn ploughs working the land, people still panning for gold by hand, and farmers milking cows by hand too. I love the thoughtful details that have gone into the paintings – in the photo here on the left, I zoomed in to the image of two farm workers carrying boxes of produce. You can really see them straining as they carry the boxes. The other photo on the right here is part of the fresco depicting lawyers and the legal system. The artist had a lot of fun thinking up titles for all the books on the shelves and there is some pretty clever satire going on in these four titles.
I also really like the fact that some female artists were involved in creating the murals and one of them, Maxine Albro, created one of the biggest and most impressive murals in the entire sequence. For centuries there has been a dearth of female artists and I have always thought this is due to lack of opportunity rather than lack of talent. The photo on the right is part of Albro's painting and this section shows women working on a flower plantation.