Issue 17.4: August/September 2014

Deco in the Islands

Story by Julia Steele


In 1938 a WPA painter named Eugene Savage arrived in Hawai‘i. He’d come to do research for a series of murals and spent his days in the Bishop Museum, poring over artifacts and learning the Islands’ history. Then he went back to his studio in Connecticut and painted six panels. He reimagined ancient Hawai‘i as one long, glorious party: here the lu‘au, there the wahine and ali‘i, everywhere the festivity. His stylized images —which he’d been hired by Matson to create—were destined for fame: first in the 1940s on the cover of ocean liner menus and later on everything from coffee cups to T-shirts. Likely you’ve seen the reproductions yourself. And now’s your chance to see the real thing—all six original panels, being displayed in their entirety for the first time in Hawai‘i as part of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Art Deco Hawai‘i show, which runs through January 11, 2015.


Savage is not the only artist in the show to have six iconic works on display. That honor also goes to Arman Manookian, another who painted the Islands in a modernist style, using an economy of means to bring out specific themes: Manookian’s huge, colorful tableaux celebrate the abundance of the Island landscape. Several of the Armenian artist’s canvases hung in the Hotel Hana-Maui for decades before being sold into private collections; Art Deco Hawai‘i offers a rare chance to see them again.


It was the museum’s curator of European and American art, Theresa Papanikolas, who dreamt up the idea of the show and put it together. She characterizes Art Deco as “the eclectic and friendly version of Modernism”— streamlined but with historical flourishes and a tendency to take on the character of wherever it landed. In Hawai‘i that translated into, for example, the use of tropical plant and kapa (bark cloth) motifs.

In addition to Savage and Manookian, the museum’s show will feature canvases from other noted Island painters of the time as well as jewelry, furniture, magazines and even a section on Hawai‘i’s Art Deco architecture—classics like the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. “I’m hoping,” says Papanikolas, “that after seeing the show people will start to recognize Art Deco in the world around them.”