A visit to the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) exhibit “Belle Baranceanu: The La Jolla Murals,” on display June 10-Sept. 3 at Wisteria Cottage, is the closest an art-lover can get to wandering into La Jolla High School’s then-auditorium in 1940 while Belle Baranceanu was painting “The Seven Arts” mural, her final commission through the Federal government’s New Deal projects.
Baranceanu’s masterpiece, painted over a proscenium arch that framed the school stage, was demolished along with the auditorium in 1975 due to concerns regarding its resistance to a seismic event. Exhibit curator Jennifer Hernández explained, “She painted (the mural) on canvas and before she even started, the canvas was adhered to the proscenium arch around the stage, and because it was part of the wall, there was no way to get it off.”
The artist painted two murals in La Jolla, which were government funded, as the country recovered from the Great Depression — La Jolla High’s “The Seven Arts” and the La Jolla Post Office’s “Scenic View of the Village,” which remains today covering a side wall in the lobby.
For Hernández, who holds a Ph.D. in history, the interest in Baranceanu was related to this historic context. “I used Baranceanu to talk about the social history of Great Depression in San Diego. I thought she made a great case study as someone whose career was saved by the New Deal, in a time when artists were not getting a lot of work.”
The idea for the exhibition was sparked when San Diego attorney John Howard donated the real-size draft panels where Baranceanu sketched out “The Seven Arts.”
“We wanted to explore the development of these two murals (‘The Seven Arts’ and ‘Scenic View of The Village’) that are in this community and put some of this material on exhibit for the first time,” LJHS executive director Heath Fox told La Jolla Light.
“We’re looking forward to this exhibit. We think it’s going to resonate with the community quite a bit because almost everyone who has been in La Jolla for any time in their lives has been in the Post Office and has seen the mural that’s still there, and there are many people who went to La Jolla High and remember ‘The Seven Arts’ mural when it was there.”
The donated mural sketches, known as “cartoons,” are the full scale context preliminary drawings “that Baranceanu did use in the execution of the mural itself,” Fox said. Before they could be exhibited, the panels had to go through restoration, and Balboa Art Conservation Center paper conservation chief director Janet Ruggles was the right woman for the job.
“The biggest challenge was that they are big,” she told the Light. “We had to find a space large enough in the lobby where we could actually unroll the panels (to document them with pictures).” Ruggles said the biggest panel is 17 feet long (the original dimensions of “The Seven Arts” were 36 feet high by 41 feet wide).
Ruggles related that one of the surprising things about the panels was that the artist had cut out the hands in all the drawings and then taped them back on, which she made sure was noticeable to the public visiting the exhibit. “My job is to conserve the original and protect what’s there and what happened to it,” she said, implying the changes and mistakes on the panels were important and gave context to the artistic process.
The drawings underwent an intensive process of restoration, which is documented in the exhibit. LJHS archivist Michael Mishler told the Light that when they first received the panels “there were pieces coming off of them.”
The artist was born 1902 in Chicago, Illinois, where she also attended art school. “In the 1920s and ’30s the Art Institute in Chicago was mecca for artists,” Hernández began, “I believe if she had stayed in Chicago, it would have been harder for her to survive as an artist … the competition was fierce.”
Baranceanu moved to California where she was able to land several New Deal contracts to paint murals for the Government, two of them in La Jolla. “She really set herself apart in San Diego as being a very talented artist compared to the small community of artists who were already here,” Hernández opined.
For Hernández, Baranceanu’s style is very “unique,” a combination of cubism and American regionalism. “I think she dabbled more in abstract art than a lot of artists did in the ‘30s,” she added.
“Her contribution is that she not only provided these wonderful murals, but she had roots in education and especially with ‘The Seven Arts,’ she used her art to teach people,” she said. The Seven Arts featured in the mural are (from left to right): literature, theatre, dance, music, painting, sculpture and architecture.
Some of the figures are based on famous images of the time, such as sculptor Donal Hord with his “Guardian of Water,” a sculpture from the same era that remains in front of the San Diego County Building on North Harbor Drive.
IF YOU GO: “Belle Baranceanu: The La Jolla Murals” will be on display June 10-Sept. 3 at Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St. Hours: Thursday-Sunday noon-4 p.m. Free. (858) 459-5335. lajollahistory.org