Are you kicking yourself because you never got a chance to see Art Deco Hawai‘i? (The hit show closed in January.) Well, one of the highlights of the show—six murals by Eugene Savage—are now on view in the Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery, thanks to Matson extending their loan of the paintings. You have until Aug. 16 to see them.
“People had been asking me if Art Deco Hawai‘i could remain permanently on view,” says Theresa Papanikolas, curator of European and American art and Art Deco Hawai‘i. “We couldn’t do that, but the requests inspired me to ask Matson if they would extend the loan. Matson and I both agreed that it’s a good thing—it gives the community to opportunity to see this important aspect of Hawai‘i’s visual culture.”
Papanikolas says that visitors to the exhibition had a palpable reaction to the Savage paintings. “These are originals of images that many Hawai‘i residents have seen all their lives. It’s really gratifying to see the emotional impact the works have on people as they walk into the gallery.”
Does Papanikolas have a favorite? “I love them all,” she says. “I like the tension between the identifiable historical artifacts and the outlandish impossible situation in which they’re placed. My favorite example is Island Feast—the chief looks a little drunk and even the pig about to be roasted is smiling.”
Here’s what Theresa wrote about the murals:
In 1938, Matson commissioned the American painter Eugene Savage to create six Hawai‘i-themed murals. Monumental in scale, designed to inspire, and no doubt intended for public display, these paintings had never been exhibited publicly until Art Deco Hawai‘i, a landmark exhibition organized by the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2014. Instead, upon their completion, with the advent of World War II, the works were placed immediately into storage. After the Armistice, Matson used reproductions of the paintings as covers for the collectible menus on its Honolulu-bound liner, the S.S. Lurline, while the actual paintings remained hidden from view.
Savage was academically trained and a seasoned painter of murals, and his commissioned work includes paintings for municipal buildings throughout the United States. For his Hawai‘i project, he traveled from his teaching post at Yale University to spend three months in Honolulu researching and sketching artifacts, botany, topography, and received histories to master the particularities of the islands’ atmosphere and visual culture. The murals reflect the artist’s careful investigation: meticulously executed and intricately layered, they reference the art, objects, flora, and fauna that he no doubt encountered in area museums and botanical gardens.
But far from documenting Hawai‘i’s indigenous art and customs, Savage used all he absorbed as a set of props in an elaborate visual narrative that articulates, embellishes, and reimagines life in the islands as a celebratory spectacle of color, pattern, and movement. His fantasy portrayal of historic and local tropical culture was mirrored in the hospitality, allure, and entertainment value of the contemporary island experience. By romanticizing perceptions of Hawai‘i’s timeless exoticism and natural beauty in stylish, boldly decorative, and inescapably Art Deco terms, the murals served the tourism industry in its ambition to promote Hawai‘i as a paradise on earth.