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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Discovering Hiler

This is an article that I wrote for the April 2009 issue of our Friends of the Library newsletter, Relative Bearings, on our library's holdings related to Hilaire Hiler, the artist who not only painted the murals in the Aquatic Park Building at SF Maritime NHP, but was in charge of all the artwork in the remarkable WPA building. I reprint it here because his contribution to maritime art seems little known.

Discovering Hiler
by Heather Hernandez, Technical Services Librarian
Reprinted from: Relative Bearings, issue 13 (Apr. 2009), p. 1-2.

Until recently, the library's holdings on Hilaire Hiler were sparse: his Notes on the Technique of Painting (1969), a few mentions in one volume of his friend Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, and a pam file. When interest in Hiler was spurred by the second phase of the Museum restoration, we discovered this wasn't sufficient. For an artist so concerned with conveying his ideas in words as well as pictures, this wasn't sufficient.

This current phase of Museum restoration includes conservation of Hilaire Hiler's colorful murals evoking the lost Pacific continent of Mu. (Hiler is also responsible for the beautiful room, originally the Ladies' Lounge, that he called "The Prismatarium," as it functioned in relation to color the way a planetarium functions for the heavens.) In conjunction with completion of the first phase of restoration, the main floor of the Museum building has also been opened for public tours (which are wonderful and highly recommended--call the Visitor Center for more information, 415-447-5000). After taking the tour myself, I wanted to learn more, and discovered some monographs in the pam file--I individually cataloged them in order to increase their visibility. These were two very small volumes with sparse information--but one of them had a bibliography.

Debbie Grace, as the Technical Services Library Technician, has a talent for locating out-of-print books in excellent condition at reasonable prices. Working through the bibliography, as well as following online leads, we discovered that Hiler was a prolific author, writing often about painting and color theory, and that the Library lacked many important works. (See below for a complete list of our holdings.)

We also discovered that Hiler was quite an interesting figure. Born Hiler Harzberg in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 16, 1898, he and his entire family later formally changed their surname to Hiler due to the increasing amount of hostility and prejudice against Jews. In his youth Hiler attended the Rhode Island School of Design but later enrolled in the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce in accordance with his father's wishes. Many articles in Time magazine talk about the Hilers, including Hilaire's flunking out of Wharton, being told by two Philadelphia art schools that he can't draw, and pursuing piano and the saxophone before eventually making his way to Paris (despite being forcibly removed from a Europe-bound freighter by his dad's private detectives).

In Paris he played jazz, often with a live monkey on his back, and was part of the first jazz band ever to play in Germany. He came to co-own a jazz club that was closed down after the inadvertent ejection of a Senegalese Prince; he reopened the club, inviting every black in Paris to the opening.

In regards to art, he was steeped in post-cubist movements, and came to be recognized as a leader of the Precisionist movement, writing on abstract art, costume, and color and design theory. He moved to San Francisco in the 1930s, was commissioned by the WPA to paint our murals and was an active artist in California before starting the Hiler College in Santa Fe in 1944. Well traveled, he died in Paris in 1966. Several posthumous retrospectives have been held, and perhaps his stature as an artist is best expressed by an anonymous writer in Time:

"All his life he wanted to be a painter, but virtually his only formal education in the arts was a few lessons on the saxophone. Serious critics have praised his work, night-club proprietors have admired his murals, and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Mrs. John Work Garrett have bought his paintings." --"Hilermono," Time, Monday, Mar. 23, 1936.

Sources and selected bibliography (Library holdings noted):

Churchward, James. The Lost Continent of Mu: Motherland of Man. (not held by the Library)

Guthrie, Julian, "Maritime Museum restoration reveals hidden art," San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, October 3, 2008, p. B-1,

Hiler color harmony chart and color mixing guide. In the Library at: r ND1510.H55 1900z

[Hiler, Hilaire file] In the Library at: p NA3860.H5 pam

Hiler, Hilaire. Aquatic Park building decoration. In the Library in: p NA3860.H5 pam

Hiler, Hilaire. Color harmony and pigments. In the Library at: rr ND1510.H545 1942, with accompanying chart.

Hiler, Hilaire. Notes on the technique of painting. In the Library at: ND1500.H5 1969

Hiler, Hilaire. The painter's pocket-book of methods and materials. In the Library at: ND1500.H53 1962

Hiler, Hilaire. Why abstract? In the Library at: p N6494.A2 H55 1962

Hiler, Hilaire. Why expressionism? (Includes: Manifesto of psychromatic design) In the Library at: r ND196.E9 H55 1946

Regan, Michael. Hilaire Hiler, 1898-1966. In the Library at: ND237.H59 R44 1976

Time magazine articles are available for free online from the 1920s on at and include: "Hiler hits out" (Monday, Apr. 5, 1943), "Hilermono" (Mar. 23, 1936), "Sea murals" (Monday, Feb. 6, 1939), and "Why abstract?" (Monday, Oct. 1, 1945)

Waldemar, George. Hilaire Hiler et la vision panoramique. In the Library at: p ND237.H59 W35 1932

Major archival collections of Hiler's include those held by the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution and by the Zimmerman Library, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

For more information, consult the library catalog, or

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