California Dreams: Edwin Deakin's Mission Paintings

Painting by Edwin Deakin.

Living in Santa Barbara, one cannot escape the influence of the missions on the aesthetic of California. Thanks to the energetic Pearl Chase, the woman who crafted much of what has become the city's famously strict architectural code, red tile roofs run continuously from the mountains to the sea, uninterrupted by either tall buildings or modern developments. Thus the Mission Style that stretches now from its origins in stately homes and public buildings as far as the Taco Bell logo carries a special significance in this town, where it manifests in such an extraordinarily thorough and visually appealing way. Fortunately, this sense that Santa Barbara has a special relationship to the history of old California extends beyond mere appearances to become an ongoing part of the fabric of artistic life here. Witness Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery. The gallery's gracious buildings on East Anapamu Street include multiple galleries and a fine dining restaurant, the Arts and Letters Café. In addition to displaying the work of such contemporary artists as Hank Pitcher, Angela Perko, John Nava, and Nicole Strasburg in a constantly shifting array of well-designed and imaginative exhibitions, Sullivan Goss serves as a center for the acquisition, study, and sale of a wide range of important artists' estates. While not exclusively concerned with California artists -- there's an excellent show of Andrew Wyeth's work on exhibit there now -- the gallery does concentrate on tracing the provenance and celebrating the achievements of those who have had an impact on art in the state. By no means limited to the antiquarian --you're as likely to see a bright abstraction by 20th century artist Sidney Gordin on display as you are an atmospheric piece of Colin Campbell Cooper's American impressionism --Sullivan Goss nevertheless takes extra care, through an elaborate program of research and publication, to provide those interested in the history of art in California with a comprehensive resource.

"San Buenaventura" by Edwin Deakin
"San Buenaventura" by Edwin Deakin.

It's an exciting time to be involved in this project of historical documentation, as, unlike the archives of many comparably important art movements, the records and objects that define California's taste and style from the Gold Rush onwards remain in many instances scattered and disorganized.

Consider for example the suite of watercolors by Edwin Deakin that is currently on view (through June 30). Deakin created these beautifully harmonious and understated studies of the missions of California in the final years of the 19th century; they were intended for a book project that never came to fruition. Deakin himself, aware of the extreme delicacy of the colors, particularly the blues, in these images, sewed them up neatly in a black cloth bag designed to keep out all light. There they remained, unseen for nearly seventy years, only to turn up first in an East Bay storage facility, and then in the hands of a private collector who has loaned them to the gallery for this show. Images of the missions are of course ubiquitous, but few are as fresh or as mindful of the historical moment as these quietly intense paintings. The colors are so intense, the skies so real, and the ruins so carefully observed that it can be a shock to recall that they were made over 100 years ago.

By Edwin Deakin
Painting by Edwin Deakin.

Deakin was one of the many artists and writers to take up the project first popularized by Helen Hunt Jackson's novel "Ramona" (1884), and later codified by Los Angeles journalist, author, and tireless booster of the Southwestern lifestyle, Charles Fletcher Lummis. As the city editor of the Los Angeles Times in the 1880s and 1890s, Lummis pursued a vision of Southern California that idealized the Spanish colonial period as a lost paradise of pastoral living, yet employed this image to market the state to the incoming masses who would make his Spanish feudal landscape over into 20th century suburbia. As an acolyte of Lummis and the Spanish myth that he propounded, Edwin Deakin, armed with nothing more than a palette, an easel, and paints, set out on a pilgrimage to paint all the California missions. More than most, he succeeded in making this cult of the mission into something specific, permanent, and real, avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality and sensationalism by working much of the time en plein air and adhering to a strict program of observation and reflection.

Edwin Deakin
Edwin Deakin.

In images such as "Nuestra Senora de la Soledad," Deakin plays the angular bare ruined choirs of a neglected structure off against the rugged landscape in which it tenaciously hangs on. The missions are the heroes of these depopulated images, bravely testifying to the undying spirit of those mostly imaginary forerunners that Charles Fletcher Lummis liked to call "the Spanish pioneers." Insofar as the mission culture provided a blueprint for a modern society, these claims were perhaps fantastical, but, as Deakin and other proved with their art, California did indeed have a verifiable and eminently useful Spanish past. The great and powerful paradox of the Spanish Colonial, or Mission Revival style is here stripped to its essence, as nothing says "stability" like a cohesive set of ruins. By traveling the old route of El Camino Real, and making the pilgrimage that once defined the vocation of the Franciscan fathers, but with the important difference that he would be doing so as an advocate of art, rather than religion, Edwin Deakin merged with the single strongest cultural current in the history of the state, a dream of order, dignity, and coexistence with nature that takes as its primary symbol a rustic mission, isolated, often decaying, but still alive with the sights and sounds of the landscape. See, for example, the swallows circling the cross in Deakin's "San Francisco Solano," or the variegated canopy of trees that relieves the repetitive arches in the façade of "San Juan Bautista." By capturing these moments, Deakin set other dreams in motion, and even today, those fantasies of freedom remain potent symbols of the life that California continues to promise.

By Edwin Deakin
Painting by Edwin Deakin.


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