Issue 12.3: June/July 2009

Lands of Enchantment

story by Liza Simon

Early in his career, Charles Bartlett was on track to become a famous painter in Victorian England. But after he lost his first wife in child-birth, he set sail for Asia, determined to paint with an earthy intensity, beyond the classical training he’d received in Parisian art academies. In the East he found ample opportunity to indulge his keen eye. He painted Buddha statues in Japan, Hindu festivals on the banks of the Ganges, midnight caravans on the outskirts of Peking. He was enthralled by the Taj Mahal and, in the manner of the Impressionists, often painted it several times a day to show the monument’s transformation with light. In Japan Bartlett discovered another art form he was deeply inspired and influenced by: ukiyo-e, woodblock printing.

In January 1917 he sailed into Honolulu Harbor and here, in the Islands, found the ultimate light: He was mesmerized by Hawai‘i’s ceaseless shades of sun and sea and turned his painting and printmaking to scenes of surfers, swimmers and fishermen. He produced visual delights, works full of color and movement and luster. Anna Rice Cooke, who had only recently founded the Honolulu Academy of Arts, became an ardent commissioner and collector of Bartlett’s works. The artist decided to live out his life in Hawai‘i—a decision that proved fortuitous for his legacy. By the time of his death in 1949, Europeans had forsaken the Orientalist movement in art, and Bartlett’s oeuvre might have lapsed into obscurity altogether had not his Hawai‘i descendants and officials at the Honolulu Academy of Arts stayed in touch with each other, cherishing Bartlett simultaneously as Hawai‘i’s own Monet and as a master of ukiyo-e. Now the academy is mounting a major exhibit of Bartlett’s work titled “A Hawaiian Master Revisited,” which will be up through April 2010. The show features Bartlett’s Korean works in the Korean gallery, his Indian works in the Indian gallery, his Western works in the Western gallery … you get the idea: The show will draw viewers through the entire circle of galleries. “Bartlett,” says Shawn Eichman, the academy’s curator of Eastern art, “belongs to us all.”

The Honolulu Academy of Arts