Berkeley: Historic murals will be preserved – EastBayTimes.com
BERKELEY — A collection of mystical murals at the heart of the Bay Area’s rich, post-World War II cultural history will be preserved, now that the buyer of a house on Oregon Street has agreed to a conservation deal.
The Kael Basart House — so known for film critic Pauline Kael, who lived there from 1955 to 1965, and the Basart family that owned it since 1966 — has been sold to Reuben Gibson, a tech marketing and sales manager and outdoors buff. Escrow closed Monday.
Kael was part-owner of the now-defunct Cinema-Guild theater on Telegraph Avenue near Haste Street and eventually became a film critic for The New Yorker magazine. The late Robert Basart was a composer and a music professor at Cal State-Hayward; his wife Ann Basart, nee Todd, was a publisher and longtime music librarian at UC Berkeley. As a child, she acted in more than two dozen movies.
Several walls inside the brown shingle house are covered with murals painted by artist Jess Collins in 1956. Jess, who was mostly known by his first name, was the life partner of poet Robert Duncan, a major figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, the writers and artists movement of the postwar period.
The couple were among the inner circle of Kael’s extensive network of friends.
“She ran a salon, and this became the epicenter of the Berkeley Renaissance, which eventually moved to San Francisco,” said Ortrun Niesar, the broker’s associate who helped negotiate the deal.
“In 1955, Jess and Duncan went to Europe, and spent a year there,” said Niesar, an art aficionada who has worked at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco and is now with Sotheby’s International Realty in Oakland.Advertisement
“When they came back they were totally fired up.
“In an ensuing burst of creativity, Jess painted the murals in Kael’s house.
Among the subjects they depict are a white stag among beds of flowers; Kael’s daughter Gina looking into a mysterious landscape; a cow amid colorful patches in a field. One mural features a lamp, book and other household artifacts in an abstract cubist style.
On the ceiling near the front door is a mandala that Niesar said was inspired by the 1951 Jean Renoir movie “The River,” which was filmed in India.
The house is a fine example of the type of Berkeley brown-shingle house that defines the city, said Dave Weinstein, features editor for CA-Modern magazine, who first reported on the issue of the endangered murals in June 2014.
“What makes it special is having wall after wall of art by a very young Jess that suggests which way his art will go, but at the same time, in and of itself, really good art,” Weinstein said.
“It’s not only of interest historically.”
Also in the house is a mural by the artist Harry Jacobus.
“The artwork speaks to me,” Gibson, the new owner, said at a reception at the house on Friday attended by many Berkeley artists, writers, critics and other cultural luminaries. Gibson’s father is artist David Gibson, and he also is grandson of two artists, he noted.
Preservationists initially had hoped for a 50-year agreement, but that would be unworkable, Gibson said.
Although the agreement is for 10 years, Gibson said he has every intention to preserve the art beyond that time.
The house sold for $1.45 million. The covenant, which was recorded with the deed, will allow a certain amount of access to the Committee to Preserve the Kael/Basart House and the Jess Murals, which Niesar helped found in 2014 shortly after she was approached about selling the house, and discovered the murals.
David Pollack was a UC Berkeley freshman in 1960 when he rented the cottage at the back of Kael’s house; in the cottage were sliding wooden doors with a painting by Jess of the Garden of Eden.
The cottage was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s, according to Niesar. Pollack, who later became a professor of literature at the University of Rochester and author of the book “Reading against Culture: Ideology and Narrative in the Japanese Novel,” described his first impression of the house, its rooms aglow with Tiffany lamps, in a 2003 article in California Monthly:
“An elfin Gina Kael ushered me into a living room filled with what was to be a regular cast of characters: a long-haired young man playing Chopin brilliantly on a Steinway upright; a slender and somewhat gamin young mathematics grad student who served as Pauline’s secretary and typist; a plump young Stanford prof with a jolly laugh who held forth on Brecht and Marx; a tall, thin, wispy man with nervous affectations whose conversation was all music and art and philosophy; and, on that particular evening, a dark and trimly bearded middle-aged man named Michael, who was introduced as the last surviving Romanoff and dauphin to the throne of czarist Russia.
“I was entranced,” Pollack reminisced.
“I had never been around such intense mental and cultural activity.”