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The Golden Mirage

California was never really like this, but artists who created these indelible images also gave birth to a powerful ideal. 'California Calls You' is a collection of these dreamy artworks from 1900-40 that were aimed at luring transplants to this state.


Although hard to imagine, there was a time when people had to be coaxed and cajoled into coming to California. The railroads, land companies and chambers of commerce spared no expense in their promotional efforts, employing the best artists and designers of the period.

Humble orange crates became wooden canvases that promoted the produce; postcards adorned with delicately drawn golden poppies could be sent to snowbound relatives back East; and brochures pictured in soft watercolors a state so beautiful it beckoned to potential settlers or tourists.

Some of these delightful promotional pieces are on display at the current "Made in California" show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They are displayed primarily in the wings devoted to the "art and image" of California from 1900 to 1940, when most of the really handsome paintings and drawings were done. For many visitors these bits of early advertising are every bit as lovely as the plein-air paintings that hang next to them.

A new book, "California Calls You," by K.D. Kurutz and Gary F. Kurutz, published by Windgate Press of Sausalito, is devoted entirely to--as the subtitle says--"The Art of Promoting the Golden State, 1870 to 1940." It is filled with 360 early examples of promotional art and is a digital triumph that completely captures the line and color of a remarkable period of commercial art.

Much of the art comes from the collections of the California State Library, where co-author Gary Kurutz is a curator of special collections. Other pieces come from private collections. All of the brochures, labels, posters, maps, stickers and other printed matter are what is called ephemera, which is simply stuff that was not meant to be preserved or saved. The art was produced by well-known Western "fine" artists such as William Bull, Maynard Dixon and Maurice Logan, as well as many relatively unknown commercial artists and illustrators. Quite a few of the artists have been identified in the back of this book, and there are biographies on many.

The scenes of early California living might bring tears of remembrance to longtime residents, even though those memories are probably clouded by years. There are lovely drawings of the pristine California countryside, its farms and orchards, and of the residents' activities, from picnicking among the poppies to surfing (in a full-length ladies' swimsuit, no less).

But this art represents an ideal, not a reality. A delightful scene shows a Southern Pacific steam train just feet from a pristine beach with golden poppies growing on the bluffs above, all underneath a graceful eucalyptus. But it simply wasn't possible, even in 1913, when this brochure was produced.

Billowing clouds of oily black were probably coming from the stack, not the little wisp of white pictured, and no tracks were laid so near the pounding surf. The poppies were probably long gone by the time the imported eucalyptus appeared, but this does not demean the art.

This is a California that has always existed mostly in the mind's eye, though on a clear, warm day following a Santa Ana, you can still stand on a bluff overlooking the ocean and stare at a crisp, steely sea. Pick the right place and there might even be a few early poppies blooming.

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