Mission Art, Architecture, and Sculpture

IMG_2745By Monica Orozco, SBMAL Director

What does an art historian from Switzerland have to do with the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library? A great deal, actually.

The Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library is most known for its diverse collection of mission-era documents, books, and art. Along with these invaluable resources, however, we also have several collections of private papers donated by some of the most respected art historians, anthropologists, archeologists, and historians of California Missions. One of these collections most often requested is the Kurt Baer Collection.

Kurt Baer (1903-1979) was born in Switzerland as Kurt Baer von Weisslingen. In 1909, his family moved to Northern California, and as his scholarly work indicates, became a Californian. Baer would complete his undergraduate work and MS degree at UC Berkeley before studying design in San Francisco. Afterward, he spent several years studying and traveling in Europe.

In 1931 Baer returned to California to continue his studies, completing his doctoral degree at the University of Southern California. He subsequently taught at several universities and colleges, including USC and the University of California, Los Angeles. He was also very active in the world of theatre and ballet.

Baer joined the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1947 where he taught studio art and art history classes. While he would continue to work in theatre design, it was during his tenure at UCSB that his interests and scholarly work focused on California Mission architecture and history. His research in the field included participating in archaeological excavations at Mission La Purísima in the 1950s and he extensively photographed the exteriors and interiors of the missions of Alta California, documenting the paintings, artifacts, and sculptures. His research would lead to three major monographs, Painting and Sculpture at Mission Santa Barbara (1955), The Treasures of Mission Santa Inés: A History and Catalog of the Paintings, Sculpture, and Craftworks (1956), and Architecture of California Missions (1958).

Not only are Baer’s published works still key references for scholars, Mission museum personnel, and for us at SBMAL, but it is Baer’s assemblage of photographs and research notes that he contributed to the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library that is frequently requested for review by researchers in the field of California Mission Art History.

Kurt Baer divided his research notes into categories reflecting his main research interests. There are files for each mission and some asistencias. There are also files focused on the use of the motif of the Good Shepherd in mission art. There are also files reflecting the studies and travels he undertook in Mexico and Peru in the 1960s under the Fulbright Program and in his capacity as a cultural affairs agent for the US State Department.

While Kurt Baer may not have been born in California, he lived most of his life here and contributed significantly to our knowledge of architecture, sculpture, and art in the Missions of Alta California and the important role these played in the evangelical efforts undertaken.

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