I posted a couple years back about a great show of Japanese Art Deco held at Japan Society in New York; that show has since traveled to a number of other institutions, introducing museumgoers in a number of major US cities to a Japan, and a more global, non-Western-inclusive Art Deco movement, they likely knew nothing about before. Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing a similar exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, entitled “Art Deco Hawaii.”
While there were few pieces that really struck me as looking or feeling very Art Deco, and so the overall impact of the show was not really one of expanding my feeling of a more global sense of how Art Deco took place around the world, the show was brilliant nevertheless, including many truly gorgeous works, introducing us to a number of great artists who are widely unknown and woefully under-appreciated outside the niche field of Hawaiian art, and, further, introducing to visitors a somewhat nuanced and complex look at the functioning of exoticism, etc., in the art of that time, with tourism marketing materials and people’s more general conceptions of the islands, between the two of them, building up a certain set of images and understandings of the islands that was purely constructed, imagined, and which continues to have great influence today. As David A.M. Goldberg puts it in his biting review of the show in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “most works were commissioned by corporations such as Matson and Dole, which were either trying to sell the islands’ products, or the islands themselves as product,” through promotion of the islands’ natural charms – both scenic (land, sea, sky, flora and fauna) and human. Goldberg’s review, entitled “Art deco examples distort Hawaiian culture, history,” is far more bold and upfront about the Orientalizing impact of these works than I think the exhibit itself was, and makes for interesting reading.
“The Discovery” (1928), one of a number of works in the show by Arman Tateos Manookian, an Armenian-American artist who tragically committed suicide at the age of 27, in 1931. I find his pieces stunningly beautiful in their bold colors, and distinctive style, with broad blocks of color in place of finer-grained detail.
Still, regarding the Orientalizing/exoticizing discourses to which these works contributed, I was quite pleased to see how the curators described this phenomenon to visitors; ideas of Orientalist discourse, of media discourse theory, and the like, are generally not so widely discussed, or widely known, I think, outside of academia (and certain other fields), and it shows a certain keenly critical, and post-colonialist political, approach to bring this to the general public, by way of the museumgoer. The exhibit does not focus on these works as being simply beautiful, or expertly executed, and to a large extent does not work to reify (reinforce) these exoticizing discourses, but instead really points them out and asks visitors to come away with a more nuanced and complex understanding of the history of the construction of ideas of Hawaii. It also situates “Art Deco Hawaii” in the historical contexts of both the Art Deco movement and of Honolulu/Hawaiian history, presenting the topic in a serious and academic way, but in a way which I hope, I imagine, wasn’t too inaccessible to the average museumgoer. In this, actually, I think it may have done a better job than the Art Deco Japan show – since I could not take photos in that show, I don’t have any record of exactly what was and was not said in the gallery labels there, but my blog post on the exhibit does indicate that I felt the show did not provide enough discussion of how this fit into the history of the Art Deco movement, or of the urban culture of Japan at that time.
“A God Appears” (1940), one of a series of six murals by Eugene Savage, all on display in the show, commissioned by the passenger steamship liner company Matson. Where Manookian’s works, for better or for worse, are more subtle (and, arguably, perhaps, that much more insidious?) in their romanticizing of Hawaiian history and culture, Savage’s works boldly represent Hawaii as a place of continuous eternal celebration, extending even to events such as the encounter with Captain Cook, and the overthrow of the kingdom, events which are today considered hardly worth celebrating. The Orientalist tropes here are so blatant, they’re almost laughable – or they would be, if not for their very real and insidious impacts.
In the Art Deco Hawaii show, we are told that “Art Deco proved ideal for conjuring the islands’ natural beauty and fabled past for a public that was aspirationally contemporary yet nostalgic at heart,” and we also see the curators pulling no punches, not talking down to visitors, but instead boldly going ahead with a somewhat more complex explanation of the topic, saying that
A regional form of modernism centered on the islands’ singular sense of place. Art Deco entered the visual arts in Hawai’i as a fusion of modernist visual formulas with localized motifs. … Hawai’i’s Art Deco was an interwar elaboration of visual codes that had been developing in Western art since the early 19th century to construct and evoke the atmosphere and allure considered unique to the islands: the beauty of their landscape, the perceived exoticism of their people and customs, and the imagined narrative of their history.
Right: “Surfer Girl” by Gene Pressler (c. 1930s), one of the only pieces in the show that really felt “art deco” to me, though as I’m not so clear on the defining stylistic characteristics of the movement, that may be off-target. For some reason, though I can’t quite put my finger on it, this feels like a painting that would look right at home at Aloha Tower, or the Chrysler Building, though I couldn’t really say just why.
Thanks so much to the Honolulu Museum of Art for allowing photos in this exhibition, of so many works which are so beautiful, so stunning, and so historically, culturally, discursively, interesting. This also allows me to capture the curators’ wording/phrasing on the labels, as quoted above, without having to bother taking the time to copy it out by hand, with notebook and pencil, there in the gallery. Now, admittedly, I could just buy the catalog. But, then, if I bought the catalog for every exhibit I saw, instead of just taking photos, how much space would that take up on my shelf, not to mention the damage to my wallet. (Incidentally, the catalog is beautifully well-done, and available at the museum for the relatively reasonable price of $30, though strangely for some reason I can’t seem to find it on Amazon or otherwise available online anywhere)
I do not know if this exhibit is going to be traveling to any other museums, but I really hope it would. I think people would very much enjoy it, if only for the truly beautiful works by so many artists who are all but unknown outside of Hawaii (or, for that matter, even in Hawaii, unless you’re one who pays particular attention to art). And, beyond that, it is really far too infrequent that we see anything about Hawaii (not to mention a whole bunch of other parts of the world) in the vast majority of US mainland museums. Just as the Art Deco Japan show was eye-opening and much appreciated by many visitors with a particular interest in Art Deco, but who did not have any particular background or interest in Japan, I think the same would go for this Hawaii show – it’s truly great to have such wonderful shows accessible to the local community, to learn something more about their own history, in this, the most remote archipelago in the world, but I think there is great value too in sharing that with the broader American and world community – and, especially for an exhibit like this, I think there would be great interest, appreciation, and enjoyment too.
Art Deco Hawaii is up at the Honolulu Museum of Art through January 11, 2015.