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Drawing Conclusions : ENCOUNTERS WITH PARADISE: Views of Hawaii and Its People, 1778-1941, By David W. Forbes (Honolulu Academy of Arts/University of Hawaii Press: $49.95; 285 pp.)

August 02, 1992|W. S. Merwin | Merwin's most recent book is "The Lost Upland" (Alfred A. Knopf)

This beautiful, indeed sumptuous, book is the catalogue from a recent Honolulu Academy of Arts exhibition of drawings and paintings of the Hawaiian Islands from the time of Captain James Cook's first sighting of the coast of Kauai until the year of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The color reproductions are excellent (and of the 160 works illustrated, almost all are in color--all that are in color in the original) and the volume, like the exhibit, presents a remarkable range of talent and perception and what might be called regard.

The subject, of course, is geographically specific and deliberately localized, but it would not be at all accurate to suggest that the art itself is provincial. Many of the artists, to begin with, were visitors from other parts of the world, mostly from Europe and the United States, and the sequence of pictures covers a period--the late 18th and much of the 19th Centuries--when it was not nearly as uncommon as it is now for educated Europeans and Americans to be possessed of artistic as well as literary competence. As a result, these paintings and drawings give a sense, at least, of what the heirs to the European tradition in those years saw and were capable of seeing in Hawaii.

The continuous and encompassing impression is one of surprise. It was there in the exhibit, touching even viewers to whom some of the works had long been familiar, and clearly it was there in the artists themselves as their talents and conventions and experience were called upon to portray places, light, physiognomies; a way of being that was rich and strange to them.

It is, as so often, impossible to tell in most cases how much of this impression is part of the original intention and how much emerged as the work did. It is visibly present in the earliest ghostly wash of Kauai by William Ellis, depicting the European landfall as the island appeared to those on board with Cook, when the explorers had not yet made their fatal contact with the inhabitants, and before "upon a closer view, it improved upon us," as Ellis put it in his journal--a shadow island, still rising out of the horizons of dreams and visions, insubstantial, undefined, blank and without promises.

One can ascribe the sense of surprise, of course, to the haste and uncertainties of the watercolor sketch and to the prevailing techniques of watercolor washes, but even then the impression reveals where the viewer is coming from as well as where he sees himself arriving. In the later, more deliberate watercolor of the moment of contact, Ellis, from an imaginary point in space, shows the European vessels Resolution and Discovery, their sails furled, on the flat sea near the shore. He is looking at it from a great distance, from outside, from a convention developed elsewhere.

Something of that surprise is still there in Esther Mabel Crawford's (American, 1872-1958) luminous 1929 portrait of a Chinese rice farm in Hanalei, Kauai, against a background of towering cliffs, with the farmers, their animals and shanties and the brilliant orange flowers of the African tulip tree reflected in the water of the rice paddy; and in Alexander Samuel MacLeod's (Canadian, 1888-1956) 1925 painting of the moonlit beach with three silver trunks of royal palms, a landscape reminiscent of Winslow Homer. In the later period it is a quality in danger of degenerating into the superficial exploitation of the props of a shop-soiled exoticism: gaudy flowers (most of them truly exotic in the sense of being imports), picturesque Polynesians of both sexes.

A few of the latter-day paintings suggest the exhaustion of a vein mined, but most of the works in the collection are remarkably immediate and revealing, and together they help to illuminate our knowledge of a crucial and ephemeral period in one of the earth's most beautiful places.

Sometimes the vantage gets in the way of the view--another kind of revelation. It happens in some of the architectural pieces, for example, such as James Patton Chamberlain's (American, 1835-1911) drawing of Mission House in 1851. The rigid bare facades, the straight walls and gates and stiff upright parallels of the paths were plainly drawn from archetypes in Puritan New England. But the middle of the 19th Century also produced some of the most ambitious efforts to represent the awesome aspects of the Hawaiian landscape, in particular Titian Ramsey Peale's (American, 1799-1885) paintings of the volcano Kilaue on the island of Hawaii from the 1840s. Some of the loveliest and most convincing portraits of Hawaiian people were made in the same decade by the Danish painter Paul August Plum, who merits an exhibit on his own and a much wider reputation.

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