The Honolulu Museum of Art presents Art Deco Hawai‘i, the first major museum exhibition to focus on the seductive Hawaiian spin on the international Art Deco style, which flourished in the islands from the 1920s to 1941. A contemporary classic, Art Deco manifested itself in Honolulu and its environs as a visual language based on the natural beauty and fabled past of the islands. As such, it served as a motivating source for modernism in the fine arts and a sustaining mode for constructing “paradise” for the tourism and advertising industries. Art Deco Hawai‘i brings together a rich and representative array of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper to show how artists active in Hawai‘i during the interwar period—long considered to be isolated, conservative practitioners of watered-down avant-garde formulae—adapted the conventions of abstraction to the Deco aesthetic and developed a regional form of modernism centered on the islands’ singular sense of place. At the core of the exhibition are two mural cycles—Eugene Savage’s six canvases created for Matson (on public view for the first time) and large-scale paintings by Arman Manookian that until 2010 hung at the Hana Hotel on Maui—both of which romanticize Hawai‘i’s early history as a celebratory spectacle of color, pattern, and movement within the Deco aesthetic.
For once a museum press release does not overstate this story, this is a long overdue show of Art Deco in Hawaii. Many of the paintings and murals to be on display in the show were originally commissioned in the late 1930’s only to have the public appreciation deferred by the outbreak of World War Two, in this case the December 7, 1941 Sunday morning attack on the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor, in the then "Territory of Hawaii." Less than four years prior to that date of infamy, in 1938 Matson lined hired the Yale College Leffingwell professor of painting, Eugene Francis Savage (1833-1978) to paint a series of images of Hawaii. Matson knew nothing about art, with the idea of using fine art to popularize Hawaii as a destination came from San Francisco advertising executive Lloyd Myers. Savage was fresh off the success of his Texas Hall of State murals (1935) and his trip to Florida to paint the Seminole Indian (the subject of a 1936 Ferargil Gallery exhibition in NYC, eventually that collection wound up at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida). Anyhow Savage was commissioned by Myers and the Matson Lines to paint a group of large murals, they measured four feet by eight feet in size showing the history of Hawaii at various critical junctures in time. Savage traveled to Hawaii in 1938 to paint the topography and the natives. Armed with his studies Savage returned home to Ossining, New York to work on the murals, with those completed two years later.
Before Savage returned, a distinguished contemporary of his was hired to paint the islands. In 1939 the noted woman artist Georgia O’Keeffe was commissioned by the Dole Pineapple Company to paint images they felt they could use in their ads. True to her unconventional nature, O’Keeffe went out of her way to see the different and dramatic from the outsider perspective.
Her best views from the trip are flower paintings and the dramatic waterfall landscapes of Maui. O’Keeffe stayed for two months from February to April 1939. On April 14, 1939, she left Honolulu on the ship Matsonia, and returned to New York. She wrote to photographer Ansel Adams, “I have always intended to return to Hawaii… I often think of that trip at Yosemite as one of the best things I have done – but Hawaii was another.” The paintings she produced were shown on February 1, 1940, during her annual exhibition at American Place Gallery (owned by her husband Alfred Stieglitz) in New York City. Two – Pineapple Bud and Crab’s Claw Ginger, Hawaii – were used in the Dole Pineapple Campaign that year.
Eugene Savage returned in 1940 to deliver his six mural paintings to Matson. This writer rediscovered the estate of the artist on behalf of the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida which became their Eugene Francis Savage Seminole Indian Show of 2011, and even with access to unpublished archival material, the records are spotty as to the deliveries of the murals to the Matson Lines Company. Six murals became famous as nine late 1940’s menu covers in the post war era, but nobody really knows why there is the discrepancy in the numbers. In any case Savage indeed delivered the murals to Matson in 1940, just in time to be put into long-term storage for the duration of the war.
After the war the Matson Lines printed up nine menu covers reproducing the Savage mural images. These were celebrated with an award at the Smithsonian Institution in 1951 as an achievement in popular lithography. The menu covers became the source image which led to the craze of Hawaiian shirts for vacationers. In any case those paintings remained in storage in either the Matson Lines headquarters in Oakland, California, or at their long term warehouse located near Phoenix, Arizona. July 3, 2014 marks the first public display of this high art deco exhibition ever held of Savage’s work alongside O’Keeffe’s work in Honolulu, Hawaii. Works by Marguerite Blasingame, Robert Lee Eskridge, Cornelia McIntyre Foley, John Kelly, Genevieve Lynch, Lloyd Sexton, Madge Tennent, and others round out the exhibition and demonstrate how Hawai‘i’s most renowned 20th-century artists each applied Deco’s lyricism and elegance to create works that pictured the islands as a peaceful, timeless, and breathtaking locale that resonated with widespread cultural nostalgia for a perceived and distant “Old Hawai‘i,”
Joining the works of Georgia O'Keeffe and Eugene Savage in the well deserved limelight of this show are two rediscovered murals by Arman Manookian (1904-1931), an Armernian born Marine. From 1923 to 1927 he served in the Corps, but stayed in Hawaii after receiving his honorable discharge. The Manookian murals were in the Hotel Hana-Maui until 2010 when they were sold. They have been on loan from a private collection to the Honolulu Museum since that time.
Former Director of the National Gallery of Art, J. Carter Brown called the Honolulu Museum of Art, “the finest small museum in the United States.” The museum features a collection that includes Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Mary Cassatt, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Andy Warhol as well as traditional Asian and Hawaiian Art. In 2011 the Contemporary Museum merged with the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the next year the combined institution renamed itself the Honolulu Museum of Art.
July 3, 2014 - January 11, 2015
Honolulu Museum of Art