The six murals that Matson commissioned from artist Eugene Savage in 1938 have people lingering in the exhibition Art Deco Hawai‘i, examining his interpretation of Hawaiian culture and events. In Savage’s works, Hawai‘i seems to be all-lū‘au, all the time. Anything that caught Savage’s eye was used to visual effect—a red feather head of Kūka‘ilimoku is indiscriminately tossed in a canoe alongside a severed pig head. In A God Appears (pictured above), Kamehameha I offers Capt. Cook a groovy blue lei. There is just so much going on—it’s impossible to not drag out your critical thinking cap and put it on your post-colonial head.

Art Deco Hawai‘i curator Theresa Papanikolas writes about the painting: “Even actual, controversial, yet transformative historical events are referenced in these murals as cause for celebration, their difficult, often contested, realities glossed over. This painting imagines the meeting between Captain James Cook and King Kamehameha I as one of equal footing, mutual understanding, and, as always, festivities. Cook, taking his first steps on Hawaiian soil, is greeted (with a lei) by Kamehameha and his reveling entou­rage, and, as the title suggests, welcomed as a deity without so much as a hint at how this initial encounter resulted in a brutal end for the British captain and precipitated profound, permanent changes in Hawaiian culture.”

Art Deco Hawai‘i is on view through Jan. 11.

In Eugene Savage's Hawai‘i, life's one big lū‘au, even when a god appears (detail).

In Eugene Savage’s Hawai‘i, life’s one big lū‘au, even when a god appears (detail).

Eugene Savage (American, 1883-1978)
A God Appears, 1940
Oil on canvas
Collection Matson