Sigh. The Palace Hotel has removed the famed Maxfield Parrish painting, The Pied Piper, from its home and original setting, Maxfield’s (the main bar’s appropriate name). They estimate its worth between $3- and $5 million, will sell it at auction In Christie’s sale of notable American paintings May 23rd. Who knows where it will end up, or what the Palace, owned by Hawaii’s Kyo-Ya Hotels and Resorts and managed by Starwood, plans to put in its place that could have a fraction of the cultural significance of the painting. The bar itself was given legacy status by the San Francisco Architectural Heritage, and it wasn’t for the woodwork.
It was always an odd choice for the hotel’s bar, which in no way diminutes the tragedy of its loss. San Francisco seems more and more like New York in a way that flatters no one–how carelessly we trade our history and our beauty for a quick mega-buck. Yet, whenever I went to Maxfield’s for a drink or appetizer–and the only reason to patronize the place was to sit in the presence of this painting, not for the indifferent food or the hilariously-priced drinks–I wondered at the choice of subject matter for the setting. It doesn’t fit Peter de Vries’s claim, that “Murals in restaurants are on par with food in museums,” which is more a dismissal of the frequently poor quality of the art commissioned or collected to hang in restaurants (or the food in a typical museum cafe). The Pied Piper‘s quality cannot be faulted; it shows off the renowned illustrator’s skill with conveying distance, fantastical landscapes, the softness of children’s faces, and tones so warm you want to press your cheek to the canvas. No, it was the strange juxtaposition of the subject matter with the people sitting in front of it that complicated my experience. Maxfield’s is pricy, although not particularly posh. The atmosphere isn’t quite appropriate for dates, too well-lit and sporty. The booths and tables often have what look like the gang from the office, determined to like each other outside the work setting, drinking and sharing appetizers and and laughing loudly. Sitting at the bar, gray and lumpy under the vivid painting and its graceful characters, are often what look like your classic businessmen–middle-aged, expensively but stylelessly dressed, alone with their martinis. They’re not the San Francisco version of businessmen, the digerati and tech-rich (those also lack style but are younger and more talkative and are probably down the street, spending even more hilarious money at Hakkasan). They seem like they’re on business trips, and that these business trips are a frequent, if not constant, feature of their jobs. After all, tourists don’t wear suits and spend dinnertime drinking alone in a hotel bar, and the Palace Hotel is not situated in a very residential part of the city; San Francisco locals probably have their own neighborhood watering holes. Or I suppose, the men could be drinking by themselves after work downtown to postpone having to go home, although those could kill the evening at The House of Shields across the street on New Montgomery, which is darker and quieter, and according to lore, used to have a piss-trough next to the bar. But these men seem to be passing through, staying at one of the landmark hotels of the city, and not having much interest or energy for exploring its other offerings. I’d observe them and imagine that they had their own kids at home–as surely many of them do, and surely in the decades-long history of that painting hanging there, most of the solitary men drinking under it have been businessmen on business trips, far from their family, possibly with no idea what their children were up to were up to. Imposing this imagined life as I had on the men, The Pied Piper takes on a new mischief.
Its subject is the German legend from the Middle Ages: the Pied Piper of Hamelin offered to use his magic pipe to lure the rats out of the infested city for a sum. When he did so, and was refused his payment, he came back while the townspeople were at church and used the same magic to lure the children away, never to be seen again. It is believed the legend is based on actual events wherein the town of Hamelin did indeed lose all of its children, but not known whether this was due to the plague or an ill-fated Children’s Crusade. Another theory is that all citizens regardless of age were referred to as “Children of the Town,” and that in the 13th Century many of Hamelin’s citizens emigrated to places like Transylvania, Moravia, East Prussia, and others, leaving Hamelin with very few “Children of the Town.” The Pied Piper is also seen as a parable for paying one’s due, which also lends dimension to this painting’s placement overlooking the off-hours Financial District hangout.
So I’d observe the men and draw this melancholy symbolic connection between their lives and the luminous work above them. There’s no hint of tragedy in the painting itself; the piper in his jolly costume couldn’t look more benign, the children seem calm and happy, and one of them is even smiling. One has to know the legend and then imagine the devastation of the bereft families, not to mention that of the town now stripped of its future, for the piece to take on its full weight–and for my presumptions about the absent fathers and their fatherless kids to bear any relevance. It did for me; I thought the work’s location, and the fact that it was originally created for that location (rather than bought later by the owners), was deliciously fraught. It was not only the very rare great work of art available to be viewed in a dining establishment, it also bore an unsimple relationship with its audience, something even rarer in the interior decor of restaurants, where the “art” is something meant to quietly establish an ambiance and then recede into the atmosphere without provoking thought or discussion. The Pied Piper was a beautiful, gleaming indictment of the class it was created for–another rarity for an artist not known as a social or political gadfly.
There is a petition one can sign to protest what is likely to go down in San Francisco history as one of the more crassly, myopically commercial decisions to desecrate the city’s heritage in a long time. http://www.change.org/petitions/kyo-ya-hotels-and-resorts-bring-the-pied-piper-home-stop-the-sale-of-san-francisco-s-cultural-legacy
UPDATE: It’s coming home! http://blog.sfgate.com/cityinsider/2013/03/25/beloved-pied-piper-painting-is-returning-to-the-palace-hotel/
I do hope it’s re-hung in the bar, though, whether that means it has to be put behind glass or not. 🙂