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Painter of Polynesian Figures Had the Touch

August 19, 1998|PHIL DAVIS

I tossed my job to my hungry friends and set sail for Tahiti . . . where the happy failures go.

Edgar Leeteg

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Hawaiian tourists in the '40s and '50s loved Edgar Leeteg's black velvet paintings--Polynesian figures, mostly nude young women, with a spooky luminosity created by careful brushing of bright paints into the rich pile.

"I remember seeing his paintings in bars," Los Angeles artist Les Biller said. "The nudes were of high quality. They weren't the kind of cheap [ones] you see now."

Leeteg craved fame, but his preference for painting on black velvet seems to have doomed him to historical obscurity.

Leeteg, a native of St. Louis, died in a motorcycle crash in Tahiti in 1953 at 48. His death created a commercial void quickly filled by imitators looking to cash in on the reported $7,000 each that his velvets were fetching at the time. As prices dropped and Leeteg's legacy faded, painters turned to mass production of more commercial images. Leeteg's subtle style was replaced by the garish caking of paint on velvet most often seen on street corners and border marketplaces today.

The wave of demand for Leeteg's work after his death never quite translated into critical success for the rowdy painter, who was considered more a commercial artist using his skill at copying images with photographic precision.

"It was a very popular art form, especially with tourists, but it's not the kind of art that would appear in a museum," said Sanna Deutsch, registrar at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. "When he was good, he was really good. And when he was bad, well, you know. He did a lot of work that was exploitative--pinup girls. But he also did a lot of portraits that really captured the Polynesian figure."

Although he sought artistic renown, Leeteg is best remembered for his Tuesday night boozing and womanizing in Tahiti, chronicled in James Michener's 1957 book "Rascals in Paradise." The 48-page chapter "Leeteg, the Legend" is one of the few reasons Leeteg is not entirely lost to history.

His works, which used to hang mostly in bars such as the old Seven Seas nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard, are in the hands of private collectors.

Judging from his own words, Leeteg would be glad that museums shun his work: "Please don't bother submitting any of my work to art societies or museums, as I hold them long-haired bastards in contempt," Leeteg wrote in a letter reprinted in Michener's book. "Leave them to plug for their own darling daubers."

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