Romantic Cityscape: Seeing the City Before the Google Grid


An essay on Paul Wonner’s Skyline with Three Bottles from Studies for Romantic Views of San Francisco.

On Valentine’s Day 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft captured a picture of our planet from nearly six billion kilometers away. The photograph of the “Pale Blue Dot,” showed Earth as a single pixel within an enormous galaxy, and it put the role of our planet and our species in brand new perspective.

Now, our smartphones and Google Maps are constantly changing the way we see ourselves and the world. They’ve reduced the earth’s surface to a set of grids filled with digital lines, shapes, and surfaces. As users we zoom in and out of abstractions, moving deeper into a place while remaining at a distance.

Paul Wonner painted the “Skyline with Three Bottles from Studies for Romantic Views of San Francisco” in acrylic on paper in 1980 — before Voyager 1 or Google — and it shows. Wonner lived on Fillmore Street with the figurative painter Theophilus Brown at the time. From there, he painted a trio of flowers sanding loosely in bottles and vases on a windowsill overlooking San Francisco. As the title suggests, the painting has a serene, romantic quality, and it evokes the longing and solitude one often feels when gazing at a skyline. The bright, bold flower petals strike a stark, contrasting pose against the darkened city, suggesting that nature is paramount to technology and the industrial world.

Wonner was born in Tucson, Arizona but moved to the Bay Area to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts. He had relationships with Nathan Oliviera and later with Brown, who was influenced by James Weeks, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Park. In 1955, Wonner and Brown rented a studio space in the same building where Diebenkorn worked — on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Wonner participated in weekly drawing sessions hosted by Diebenkorn, and he claims to have gotten his flair for romanticism from Bischoff.

Skyline with Three Bottles is a lesser-known piece of Wonner’s, who is associated with the Bay Area Figurative movement. It reminds us to let go of our obsession with the vertical view of life, and to resist staring up at skyscrapers. Instead, it beckons us to step fully into the blooming present, even while the city looms constant in the background.

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