From Coit Tower to the Opera House, a New Deal Artist Bucks Trends

From Coit Tower to the Opera House, a New Deal Artist Bucks Trends

Like traveling vaudeville acts, opera singers used to crisscross the globe with their own costumes in tow. Mismatches abounded. An opera set in the 1800s might have featured a diva in 20th century styles. A Carmen could emerge from her cigar factory dressed for high society. A Mimì could expire in finery no bohemian could afford.

The practice of actors bringing their own costumes ended on Broadway in 1919. After a month of protest, the Actors’ Equity Association succeeded in defeating the practice: No longer would impoverished performers be tasked with paying for their own stage attire.

It would take nearly two more decades for costume designers to be accepted as artists in their own right, commissioned to create unified visions for shows as a matter of practice.

Jane Berlandina was on the forefront of that trend in opera. And yet, she faced resistance. As late as 1984, the New York Times quoted the head of the Metropolitan Opera’s costume department as saying that the practice of bringing one’s own costume was “discouraged,” though not explicitly forbidden.

But as an artist, Berlandina was used to forging her own path. That is part of the legacy she left at one of San Francisco’s most prominent architectural features: Coit Tower, an art deco monument presiding atop Telegraph Hill.

Her mural is among work by 25 different artists adorning the walls of the tower, recognized among the National Register of Historic Places. It stands apart, though: Occupying a room on the tower’s second floor, “Home Life” is a painting ablaze with the oranges and reds of a sunset, fanciful and bright compared to the sturdy realism of the frescoes nearby.

Whereas other Coit Tower paintings echo the working-class murals of Diego Rivera, Berlandina’s work is often thought to be a reflection of her upbringing. She was born to a wealthy family in the coastal city of Nice, France, in 1989. As early as age 3, she was said to have started drawing — though her family encouraged her to pursue the violin instead.

World War I, however, upended the family’s fortunes. Berlandina left for Paris to pursue painting with 100 francs in her pocket — a sum she’d scraped together from tutoring. But there her world expanded: She took lessons from masters like Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy, two painters known for their exuberant Fauvist style. 

Her work exhibited at the Paris Salon, Berlandina opened her own studio in 1926. Two years later, she traveled to New York to teach and sell her work at a gallery. It was there that she would meet San Francisco architect Henry Temple Howard, her future husband.

Berlandina cut a striking figure. She was thin, with a nest of dark curls crowning her head. Stacey Moss’s book The Howards depicts her as the archetypal bohemian, “a cigarette always dangling from her lips,” distinct in demeanor from the Anglophone family she married into.

And her star was on the rise. In 1930, she was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “46 Painters and Sculptors under 35 Years of Age” exhibit. Two years later, she received a special commission to showcase her work in the museum’s display of “Murals by American Painters and Photographers.”

By then, she had already settled in California with her husband and was pregnant with her only child, a son. She continued to work, lecturing at local universities and at meetings for Group f/64, a society of photographers that included Ansel Adams.

But her colorful, wild palette and loosely drawn figures did not always find an easy audience in California. Her mural in Coit Tower, for instance, was a target of criticism, both serious and silly. 

Her application of the egg-tempera technique — using egg yolks to create a long-lasting but fast-drying mural — invited a dig from the San Francisco Examiner, which compared her mural to “the biggest omelet in town.”

The San Francisco News, however, took aim at the mural’s content. Its depiction of an idyllic, upper-class home, where friends gathered for a friendly game of cards and a living-room dance, struck the newspaper’s critic as naive, simplistic.

He scathingly observed that visitors liked it because “it is so lacking in imagination that it requires none to be understood.” Even decades later, in the book The Howards, Berlandina’s art is written off as a “charming ornament.”

And yet, her mural retains its power to captivate. Katherine Petrin, an architectural historian and preservation planner, is one of the people working to elevate Coit Tower’s ranking on the National Register of Historic Places, so that its listing reflects what she and other advocates say is its national significance.

When she first saw Berlandina’s work, Petrin admits to being perplexed. “I didn’t really get it,” she says. It was clear the Berlandina mural was “radically different” from the sober social realism of the surrounding artwork.

But then, she remembers a guide explaining the painting as a kind of dream, an escapist fantasy painted in the midst of the Great Depression, a time of severe economic hardship. “I thought that made so much sense. Some of the figures even have a slightly ghost-like quality. Some of the lines aren’t even fully finished.”

That perspective gave her a newfound appreciation for Berlandina’s work. “She did her own thing,” Petrin says. “I have always thought, ‘Wow, this woman, she must have been very independent and sure of her own talent and vision to do the mural that she did at Coit Tower.’”

It was that independence of spirit Berlandina showed when she undertook to design the costumes and set for San Francisco Opera’s 1940 production of Der Rosenkavalier. The commission followed Berlandina’s critically acclaimed outing as set designer for the company’s 1938 Pelléas et Mélisande — only now, Berlandina would also be applying her trademark brushstrokes to fabric as well as to walls and stage furnishings.

Th chronicled her work in the lead-up to the production’s premiere. “No one in the art world can keep a longer ash on a lip-dangled cigaret than the petite, frizzle-haired San Francisco painter Jane Berlandina,” its reporter wrote, noting the artist’s paint-flecked slacks as she prowled the stage.

Berlandina laid out her plans for the costumes in an interview with the newspaper: “I am painting — literally — on fabric. That’s never been done in opera to my knowledge, although it’s been done in Russian ballet and by Reinhardt in the spoken theater. Across the footlights, the costumes will seem exactly like brocades, silks, velvets.”

But her plans were scuttled when she ran up against that longstanding opera tradition: performers bringing their own costumes. Newspaper critic Alexander Fried decried the haphazard results this tradition wreaked on the San Francisco Opera stage. In reviewing the opera season in 1941, he noted that the costumes and scenery of The Barber of Seville seemed disparate, “scattered over a gamut of two centuries.” 

The same miserable fate awaited Berlandina’s vision for Der Rosenkavalier. “It was wrong for star singers to thrust their customary personal costumes into the fine fantasy of Jane Berlandina’s Rosenkavalier,” Fried wrote. He blamed the cast for letting “the visual ensemble go hang.”

Still, the times were changing. The rise of costume designers in opera paralleled the growing awareness of brand-name designers in the 1950s and ‘60s. Eventually, the San Francisco Opera stage would come to feature designs from fashion icons like Christian Lacroix and Gianni Versace.

But it all started with artists like Berlandina — artists willing to try something new, even if their visions were ahead of their time.

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