1966 Oil Painting by Michael Bowen
A short history of the San Francisco Love Generation
By R.W. Bruch
This seminal prophetic painting of Michael Bowen is one of the most influential works of art produced by this prolific artist during his short period spent in the turbulent mid 60’s Haight-Ashbury community of San Francisco. Collected by the distinguished Norwegian art patron Dr. Reidar Wennesland in the summer of 1966 while still wet on the easel from Bowen’s studio in Haight-Ashbury, “LOVE” was added to Dr. Wennesland’s impressive collection of North Beach “Beat-generation” art. Introduced into the bohemian culture of North Beach by Michael Bowen in 1958, over the years the Norwegian physician collected many artworks from Bowen and the avant-garde American cultural experience that surrounded Bowen. The hip culture of the SF Beats became the harbinger of progressive social changes soon to follow. All around were new ideas and artistic ferment. A new expression and extension of the Renaissance and renaissance art was blossoming in San Francisco and Dr. Wennesland was a crucial art patron. Reidar Wennesland’s historically valuable art collection was transported in 1971 to his hometown of Kristiansand Norway where it is now on permanent display at the Kristiansand Cathedral School and Agder University College. Generations of Norwegian students have grown-up with these American artistic “treasures” brought back by this discerning Viking art patron. It was the “LOVE” portrait chosen by the Sorlandets Kunstmuseum curators to advertise their grand opening in 2002. Made into a poster in 2002, “LOVE” was displayed for a few weeks all around Kristiansand and successfully brought the multitudes of Norwegians to the museum opening.
The LOVE portrait, painted spontaneously in a few hours in Michael Bowen’s Haight street studio during the summer of 1966, captures the essence of the zeitgeist of the times. People were constantly flowing in and out of Bowen’s studio/ashram, which left him little time to concentrate for long periods on his art. However, one day after walking the streets of Haight-Ashbury, absorbing the imagery of the newcomers to the counter-culture that was gathering in this “sanctified” place and time, Bowen rushed back to his studio, inspired to paint his impressions of what was happening. The spontaneously painted “LOVE” portrait captures the vibrations of an anonymous teenage individual wandering the Haight-Ashbury. Psychedelic hallucinations, existential questioning of reality, ecstatic euphoria, novice soul searching and an innocent bewilderment to the mystery of life are all part of the expression on this naïve pimple faced youth. This portrait expresses the mystic-reality of the street scene in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood as perceived and then painted by Bowen.
In 1966 young people from all sections of America where traveling to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The Beat Generation was morphing into a new dynamic and colorful experience in this area of San Francisco close to Golden Gate Park. Many hitched-hiked and upon arrival into the neighborhood where unemployed and penniless. Like children following the tune of the pied piper, they were all enticed to this magical place in order to experience and participate in the Cultural Revolution taking form there. Psychedelic drugs and acid rock bands were fueling the youthful masses to expand their consciousness, travel inward, and live a spiritually oriented life of freedom, love, peace, harmony, and compassion. The unique social phenomenon of the Haight-Ashbury was gathering strength as well as uncertainty as more and more youth arrived daily. Within a few months the Human Be-In of January 1967, the “gathering of the tribes”, would manifest in Golden Gate Park. This spiritual event inspired the media to report on the peace and love of the flower children culture of the Haight neighborhood. This media attention in turn inspired a tsunami flood of American youth who crammed into the small neighborhood of Haight Ashbury, all naively searching for the ever-elusive experience of peace and unconditional love. The ensuing Summer of Love defined a generation of youthful seekers that came to another apex at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
But before all these events would manifest, the 1966 San Francisco hippie scene was already evolving and spreading its message of peace and love all over the world. Haight-Ashbury was the Mandala center radiating energy circles of light and love all over the globe. The creed of living the Bill Of Rights from the American Constitution, initially embraced by the “beat generation” and cultural renaissance of North Beach in San Francisco, was now sprouting and growing into the counter-culture experiences of the 60’s. An array of psychedelic drugs, mainly LSD, as well as Eastern techniques of self-realization and mind expansion, introduced new and profound ways of understanding the enigma of life. The Haight-Ashbury community attracted youthful energy from all parts of America to live a philosophically new and innovative way of life, a life free from the corruption, hatred, bigotry, and consumerism all around them. The “Hashbury Hippies”, as they were called by the press, became filled with naïve and idealistic visions of living a life of complete freedom and love originally explored by the beat generation. They wanted to be “HIP”; that is they wanted to be aware, wise, and cognizant of all the newest attitudes towards life and the consciousness changing revolution fermenting in the Haight-Ashbury. Above all, they wanted to feel good and experience the “oceanic” promise of unconditional love. This, after all, is what the American Bill of Rights guaranteed them in their pursuit of happiness. Michael Bowen, having lived and experienced the beat generation changes of North Beach as an activist-artist, was a cultural hero to the innocent youth flooding the Haight. Bowen, along with poet/writer Allen Cohen founded the vital underground newspaper the San Francisco Oracle in order to help delineate and decipher the events of the counter-culture as they unfolded. Copies of the SF Oracle spread the perennial message of Love and spread to all parts of America, inviting the youthful generation to come join them.
Michael Bowen in Norway, 2007 with his Love Consciousness painting, 1961
“LOVE Portrait” visually depicts the 1966 Haight Ashbury zeitgeist. People were talking of the absolute necessity to offer a new way of thinking, to change society, to form a “counter-culture” of peace and love based on individual freedom. The hypocrisy of the Vietnam War initiated a “Make Love, Not War” ethos. This extraordinary social phenomenon has never been duplicated and remains a significant turning point in world history. In the small neighborhood of Haight Ashbury, people actually cooperated for the larger cause of spreading their message of peace, harmony, and unity among all humanity. Much has been written about the excesses, the LSD induced “bad trips”, the immaturity and general degradation and commercialism that soon followed the 1967 Summer of Love. However, at least for a few months, perhaps about 6-9 months according to Bowen’s own recollections, love and compassion and psychic connection actually manifested as a genuine way of life. This unique cultural phenomenon permeated the Haight-Ashbury community, and then spread its perennial message of unconditional love throughout the world. It is still remembered today, forty years later, as a pivotal year for progressive cultural evolution.
Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, at the Love Pageant Rally
Photograph by Michael Bowen
Soon after the “LOVE” portrait was painted, Michael Bowen along with Allen Cohen helped organize the “Love Pageant Rally” in the Panhandle area of the Haight-Ashbury community. The date, October 6, 1966, was the day LSD was made illegal. This date “666” took on a mystical-synchronistic meaning for those most affected by the outlawing of this powerful psychedelic drug. The number 666 has been an ancient symbol throughout history believed to represent “The Beast“or “The Antichrist.” Instead of protesting the outlawing of LSD, Bowen and Cohen wanted to create an event that would show the law’s falsity by creating a transcendent festival, not a confrontational protest. The Love Pageant Rally occurred with Janis Joplin joyously singing accompanied by her band Big Brother and the Holding Company. The other soon to be famous San Francisco band, The Grateful Dead, also played to the 2,000 plus that gathered that afternoon to celebrate the occasion. The success of this event led Bowen to believe that an even larger event could now be planned. The idea that had been formulating for over three years for a really “cosmic” event was now ready to manifest. The gathering of the tribes for the first Human Be-In was first conceptualized in Bowen’s mind on that day at the Love Pageant Rally. In the evening, Bowen further solidified his initial ideas by telephoning his mentor, John Starr Cooke, in Cuernavaca Mexico. Their conversation set into motion the biggest event to be held in the Haight-Ashbury, a spiritual event, a gathering of the tribes for a Human Be-In modeled after the Kumba-Mela festival in India.
Back in his studio, which also served as the first office for the San Francisco Oracle, Michael Bowen, Allen Cohen, Gavin Arthur, Roberto Ayala, and other influential leaders of the Haight-Ashbury, started discussing the need to bring the various contingencies of the Bay Area counter-culture together at an event to experience just “being” together. The political radical-activists of Berkeley, the peace loving hippies in the Haight-Ashbury, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, the Diggers, as well as any other counter-cultural group were all to be invited to come together for a peaceful introspective gathering, a Human Be-In. A gathering of the Tribes for the first Human Be-In was advertised by a poster, conceived and made by Bowen, all over the Bay Area as well as on the cover of the San Francisco Oracle. Gavin Arthur, a highly regarded astrologer, chose the date January 14th, 1967. Roberto Ayala helped select the Golden Gate Park Polo Field as the right place for the event. In addition, Allen Cohen humbly attempted to secure the permit to gather for a free assembly but was arrogantly refused by the city authorities. Michael Bowen then approached his friend, the late celebrated attorney Melvin Belli, with his “really big problem.” Big because thousands of people with flowers, love, food, and hope to share were ready to arrive at the Polo grounds and a permit to assemble was absolutely necessary. Mel had the answer instantly; he sent his secretary downtown who then asked and received in five minutes a permit for his birthday party at the Polo Field. Of course, January 14th was not his birthday but armed with this piece of paper, the Human Be-In entered history.
It was Michael Bowen, the primary organizer and conceiver of the Be-In, who brought all the various loose ends together. This included inviting and convincing Timothy Leary (who came from New York), Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Lenore Kandel, Richard Albert, Dennis Hopper, Jerry Rubin, Dick Gregory, Suzuki Roshi, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder, to come to the event along with organizing an array of San Francisco rock bands to play free. The Hell’s Angels motorcycle club provided security and a flatbed truck was donated for a stage. In the artistic mind of Bowen, organizing the Human Be-In would be one of his most significant “performance art” events, one that would stimulate other comparable events in other cities around the world.
Be-In poster by Bowen, Mouse, Kelley and Sonnabend
The day of the first Human Be-In was a beautiful balmy day in San Francisco. At least 25,000 people showed up from all over the Bay Area and enjoyed a fantastic day sharing the mystery of life by just “being” with others like them. The counter-culture that was now evolving into the Summer of Love of 1967 could see for the first time who they were and how strong and powerful they could become when united. The atmosphere was a celebration of life, a celebration of being with many other like-minded people vibrating peace and love to one another. A genuine experience of harmony and “oneness” occurred for many. Timothy Leary got on stage and chanted “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” which became the slogan for a whole generation. Towards the end of the day, Michael Bowen led everyone in a sun meditation initiation as the sun set over the horizon. Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and others then led everyone in chanting “Om Sri Maitreya”, an invocation for the appearance of the future Buddha. Everyone spontaneously cleaned up after themselves and only one police officer on horse back showed up to witness the event. Everyone dispersed, apostles to the brave new world manifesting before them, energized to a state of elevated awareness.
Soon, Be-Ins and Love-Ins started to manifest in other major cities in America and around the world culminating in the experience of the Woodstock festival in 1969. The January 14th 1967 Human Be-In flowed into the Summer of Love which then set into motion all the unique social experiences that positively changed the world forever. Those progressive changes continue and offer optimism and hope for future generations to come. The Summer of Love marks a time and place in history where youthful energy recognized that Love need not be a meaningless euphemism. Rather, Love is a perennial ideal, a human/divine truth written and spoken about and illustrated by artists throughout history.
The prophetic “LOVE” portrait by Michael Bowen has become one of his “good luck” paintings and remains one of the 20th century’s greatest images of this superlative human emotion. Forty years later, the historic importance of the Beat Generation and the Love Generation remains important and relevant. Today’s world, still dictated by war, conflict, greed, hypocrisy, and hatred, continues the quest for introspective and enlightened cultural-political leadership. Modern expressions of the Love generation continue to grow and expand the limits of human consciousness, directing and inspiring global transformation. The human species marches forward, but never able to forget the powerful experience of the Summer of Love that led to many progressive and beneficial changes that continue far into the future. Perhaps as we reach the nexus point of the galactic alignment on Dec. 21st 2012 and enter into the next Aquarian Age, humanity will be forced to re-examine the existential questions of Love and Meaning from yet another vantage point. Love….Divine Love….still attracts everyone on some level since to love and to be loved is the underlying basis of reality. Love as a distinctly human emotion will perpetually manifest in many creative expressions to inspire the soul’s journey home. LOVE Portrait will maintain a unique historical and artistic status as a significant prophetic Michael Bowen artwork.