Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Lavare Lions

The main entrance to Portland's Washington Park dates back to the early 20th century, and has a formal, old-fashioned feel. SW Park Place ends at the park, becoming the park loop road (Sacajawea Blvd. / Lewis and Clark Way). At the intersection, brick stairs lead to a small garden crowned by a monument to Lewis and Clark. Embedded in the brickwork, greeting visitors, are a trio of stone panels with Art Deco lions. They're low-relief designs and the lions are easy to overlook. I've always liked them, even if they're a bit anachronistic: Everything else in this corner of Washington Park is Victorian or at best Edwardian, so Art Deco looks sort of futuristic in this context. Until recently I didn't know anything about the two lions. None of the public art resources I usually check have anything to say about them. Fortunately the artist signed his work (protip to artists: always do this), and that was enough for me to figure out the rest.

The lions are the work of Gabriel Lavare, who I gather was fairly well known in his day but who seems to have vanished from the annals of Portland art in subsequent decades. Oregon, End of the Trail, the 1930s WPA travel guide to the state, lists him briefly among contemporary Oregon artists:

Gabriel Lavare, who also came from California in the early 1930's, is best known for his bas-reliefs -- carvings over the three entrane doors and the Mother and Child medallion in the foyer of the new Oregon State Library, the lion and lioness at the entrance to Washington Park, Portland -- and for the Town Club fountain.

The lions were apparently a WPA project too. A December 1934 Oregonian article raved about the lions, which had just arrived:

Those who in the future view the plaques will be impressed by the extreme simplicity with which Mr. Lavare has achieved his effect of strength, suppleness and poise which is characteristic of the cat family. Not all will realize the difficulty involved in such simple treatment and appreciate the artist's problem and the real ability which he has shown in solving it.

The designs of the lion and lioness are based on a form approximating a right-angle triangle in a square. In the lioness there is the sinuous line and alert awareness of the female, and in the lion the massive form and the unwavering strength of the male.

Mr. Lavare gives the following brief explanation of his work:

"I desired to obtain the utmost in surface decoration in the most restricted manner of carving. The style of carving was the natural outcome of working in a large, but thin, area of marble. The brittleness of the marble did not allow a depth of carving deeper than three-eighths of an inch.

"Therefore, the masses had to be arranged accordingly and every muscle which was unnecessary eliminated. Only the fewest muscles possible are depicted, and these only in order to define more distinctly the major masses."

In case you're wondering "Why lions?", it wasn't a random choice. The original Portland Zoo was somewhere nearby, just inside the entrance to the park. I haven't figured out where all the various parts of the old zoo were, but its seal pond was at the bottom of the hill near Burnside, where the Loyal B. Stearns fountain is now.

An Oregon Historical Quarterly article about the painter C.S. Price notes that he and a number of other artists, Lavare among them, had studios in the ornate but shabby Kraemer Building, at SW 2nd & Washington. The building was demolished in the name of Progress around 1951-52, and the corner is now home to the westbound offramp of the Morrison Bridge. There is nothing particularly Bohemian about the surrounding area today; like its contemporary, "The Village" on Upper Hall Street, the Kraemer Building has been quite thoroughly erased, and replaced with boring respectability.

Lavare's 1966 obituary mentions that he had moved back to California at some point. Prior to the obit he hadn't been mentioned in the Oregonian since 1941, so I gather he wasn't part of Portland's midcentury arts scene.

Here are a few other Lavare works I came across while looking for information about the Washington Park lions:

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