His Work in Hawai‘i: Interview 4 with Jean Charlot, April 7, 1978, John Pierre Charlot1


We’re sitting here while papa is doing his new silk screen.  Papa, we’ve talked about a number of things in Hawaiian art and about Hawai‘i that interested you when you came here.  How about local artists who were here?  Were there any local artists who interested you particularly?2


Yeah, I certainly think so.  In fact, I think probably May Fraser3 was the one that was the closest to me at the time.  I came here to give that class of fresco painting.  And May was very intrigued by it, and Madge Tennent4 equally.  Madge Tennent never was a student of mine in that sense.  I mean nobody was a student.  They were, of course, mature artists.  But I brought in certainly an out for the people who had done mural painting that was superior as a technique than what they had done before.  If you remember, Madge had done some murals in the wall which were panel and so on.  And just the fact that they were on panels rather than on walls made them, we could say, very large easel pictures, but at the same time, she truly had a mural feel; she truly has a mural feel.


Do you mean Juliette May Fraser or Madge Tennent?


Madge Tennent.  Even in her easel paintings, there is a mural simplicity, if you want, a certain bigness that she can’t hide even in the very small drawings.  I remember that when I gave that talk in public, while the fresco was in process, the Bachman Hall fresco, the lower part, I had certainly there Madge Tennent very happy to have somebody with whom she could sort of feel an affinity.  There was no relation probably between our styles, if you want.  But she was an innate mural painter who had not had absolute fruit of that bigness that was hers.  Some of her pictures, easel paintings, are murals.  And then at the time, I was using—I don’t know why, sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t—the rough wall for sketching in the subject.  Of course, it was a sketch after many smaller sketches.  But for full scale, there was a sketch of the mural done on the rough wall.  And I gave that talk while the wall was half done, so that people could see the intonaco, the fine coat of lime at the top, which was partly painted; they could see the rough wall with…I had done it—I think, in China ink, it was in black, it wasn’t in the red that the Old Masters used—on the rough coat.  If they had looked a little better, they would have seen the reason why this was the last time that I used this classical technique, and that is that the design between the rough coat and the fine coat didn’t coincide…with that.  The thing was a grand display, probably the grandest display of technique I’ve given, but I let it go because there was no need to have at the bottom lines that confused me from the lines I had on top.  But anyhow, for display as a spectacle, if you want, certainly that first fresco was a grand thing, given that they had never seen any fresco being done.  May Fraser always had a sort of ambivalent relationship to myself because she really had done murals, and she had done them, well, because she liked to do great big things.  She had done them in techniques that were difficult, that were not as permanent.  And she too enjoyed very much knowing, of course, fresco painting, but she owed somehow a gratitude, we could say, to the people who had preceded me in doing murals here.  So she compiled lists of people—some of them were very good indeed—who have done murals before myself.  I think Madge had a simpler reaction.  She was simply glad to see a guy who had a big feeling in his pictures because I think that at the time, she was the only one who had that same feeling or similar feeling.  Now, among my students, I put them as I usually do in groups, and mostly the Chemistry Building is the fruit, if you want, of the fresco class.5  And there are in there, well, different things.  Some are not as good as others, but they certainly were all fresco, which was relatively6 something.  What are you asking me, John?


You once told me that Madge Tennant had had a moment of importance for you because when you came here, she was the artist you could look at that showed you there was something sort of big about this place.


Yes, indeed, that’s quite true.  My sources were partly literary.  For example, I went to the Mission Children’s Society, which at the time wasn’t tied together with the Historical Society.  And the librarian there was a Miss Judd,7 who was the great-great-granddaughter of the Judd, the famous missionary.  And she was extremely helpful, gave me all the illustrations she could show me of Hawaiian things.  And she didn’t want me to get the wrong idea.  So every time there was something a little brutal, let us say—Arago,8 for example, did a series of ways of putting condemned people to death.  That was—it amused him to do those things—by strangling, by dismembering, by different things like that.  And when she gave me that—she was a good enough librarian not to hide it from me, but she suggested that this was not a good subject for the mural that I had in mind.  So she tended to tenderize, to tenderize the Hawaiian scene, which for me, coming, well, with my background in Mexico and so on, was already a little too tender.  So I was looking for strength, and that strength I did find in Madge Tennent.  So I would say intellectually—not intellectually, but instinctively—she did help me very much to find a strength in the Hawaiian people visually that wasn’t there at first sight, that people tried to avoid somehow letting me find at least in the pictures.  I went to the Bishop Museum; the collection of photographs was much smaller than it is now.  And there also Miss Titcomb9—that you have met, I think—was really the guardian of the photographs.  She was very nice, but again, she couldn’t imagine that I would find what I was looking for in photographs.  I did though.  There were some marvelous old photographs.  And the bunch of bearded kahunas and so on that I put in that first fresco—there was at least one fisherman with his long beard, and everybody said that wasn’t Hawaiian at all—is the copy of a photograph.  Of course, I didn’t know which things would look Hawaiian, which would not.  But I managed in the end to give at least…having stayed perhaps two weeks in Hawai‘i, I think that the image I ended with wasn’t so far from the truth.  I was somewhat handicapped by the fact that people, who very naturally—considering me a newcomer, which I was—would tell me what to do and what not to do.  The lower Bachman Hall fresco was spoiled because I had decided that the front of the dancers with all their dignity and so on, and that dance for the dead that I mentioned to you before—I had put a bunch of young children who were playing, who were lolling around, playing, rolling on the ground.  And somebody who should have known better—we shall not give any names…




…took me apart and told me that that could not be, that that was impossible, and that anyhow, those children looked Japanese; they didn’t look Hawaiian.  And that comes from the fact that he had seen the large cartoons, and in the large cartoons, I have sketched the hair of those people as I usually do very simply with a thing that looks like a baseball cap, so he said that was Japanese and not Hawaiian.  I took them off, and I’m sorry now that I did that.  I think it would have been very important to have that foreground of familiar things of a…that would have made a contrast with the severity, if you want, and formality of the hula dance.  I had just tried, but I was really too green to insist if people told me those things were not right.  What were you asking me?


Well, with Madge Tennent, I have another question I’d like to ask about her.  It’s interesting that you haven’t really done her subjects at all.  You have that hula, that lei seller at the top of Bachman Hall, and then you have some people in the UPW mural,11 but you never really seemed very, very interested in the subjects, that is, the mu‘umu‘ued women that she did almost constantly.


Well, I was by then fifty years old or so, and I was not interested in changing—not my style, of course, because it was another subject matter, but changing my fundamental attitudes towards things and people.  And I really waited until I found in Hawaiian life, shapes, colors, and so on, the things I wanted to find there, which, of course, isn’t very scientific, but I’m not a scientist, I’m an artist.  And then the moment I found those things, they came to life, I suppose, or I hope they came to life on the wall.


Was that a conscious idea of yours?  I mean, did you come in here thinking, “I know I’m going to find this,” or was it more unconscious, that suddenly, certain things clicked and other things didn’t?


Well, there was a certain ankylose stuff.  I mean I was stiff in the joints because I was already old enough not to be able to move around, and also there was a jolliness that was seen in Hawaiian scenes that was taken for granted, with the exception again of Madge, that was even repulsive for me.  Most of the things that I saw on Hawaiian subjects was jolly.  The most repulsive of all was really the displays at Kamehameha School,12 as I told you before.  There was certainly a very good will; there was certainly knowledge, as you know because you know the people who were in charge at the time.  But I found it, if I may say, incredibly stupid to give to those children a debased idea of their past, a debased idea of their culture.  And that, of course, I still think now perhaps even more strongly than I did then.  I remember a conversation with a fellow which I don’t remember—he was something like an architect or somebody—that had been a friend of Huc Luquiens13—he had a very beautiful collection of Luquiens engravings.  I should also add Luquiens among the people that I was interested in.  And he invited me and Zohmah to dinner or something like that.  And he put the conversation on the Hawaiians.  He wanted to know what I…not what I thought perhaps, but my reaction in being here.  He said, “Isn’t it true—and I’ve been told by Hawaiians—that they are accepted by, shall we say, the white man (he wasn’t using haole) only as entertainers?”  That is, the same idea as the negro guy, the idea of black face or whatever it was.  And even though I didn’t know very much, I reacted very strongly.  I told him, “Well, you have to remember the Hawaiian is the richest landowner in the islands if we accept the terms of the Bishop will,14 and even if it was only for that, I think that he’s a much more powerful guy.  Furthermore, my own contacts with Hawaiians have not been that way at all, and I’ve never heard a Hawaiian consider himself that way.  I don’t know who told you those things,” and so on.  So you haven’t known that period or that moment in which there was a very, well, despicable idea that Hawaiians were good for entertainers just like Negros, who were possible for entertainers and nothing else.  It wasn’t too far from that famous case—I think the Macey;15 I don’t remember the name—where some navy guys had murdered a beach boy because the wife of one of them had said she had been assaulted.  And when they were found with the corpse in their car, in the back of their car, going somewhere on the hills to bury it, they had been arrested, of course, but they had been accused and condemned, and the governor had immediately changed whatever the judge had decided to a pardon of a sort.  That’s something that we don’t see now at all.  So I took, if you want, at the time the side—without especially wanting to and not because they were so—of the underdog, but that gave me a certain strength in the things that I had to say, probably more than if they had been the upper dogs.


When did you first go up to Kamehameha Schools?  What was the occasion?


Well, it’s our friend, what’s his name?


Don Mitchell?16


Don Mitchell—who was one of the first people that people put me in contact with.  I think it’s May Fraser who put me in contact with Don.  And Don was very nice.  He showed me with pride Kamehameha Schools.  And the thing that I would say opened my eyes, perhaps I wouldn’t have realized it, was that nice lady who was teaching Hawaiian language and every five minutes would say, “But for translation only, but for translation only.”  And I found out that people didn’t look with a kind eye to children who spoke Hawaiian.  There were still quite a number of them.  And I don’t mean pidgin, I mean Hawaiian.  When you think that the whole thing was done for Hawaiians, I found the thing…the thing despicable.  Not despicable that the people were despicable.  They were nice people, but I found it incredible, if you want.  There was a slight bit of a fury that seized me that probably came into my things.  My fury17 helped me again in doing what I was doing.


Is that the occasion on which you gave the talk at… [a Kamehameha Schools graduation, where he opened his speech in Hawaiian].


That was a little later.  I didn’t know enough Hawaiian then to do it.  But in the middle of my first semester with Sam Elbert, I felt good enough to make a little introduction, if you want, to the talk I was to give in Hawaiian.  I memorized it.  I wasn’t, I never have been a conversationalist in Hawaiian.  It was a pleasure to see all the children, you know, pricking their heads up instead of being just dulled by a speech—they expected to be dulled by the speech—and suddenly interested.  And it may be an illusion but it seemed to me that all the teachers shrank into themselves when I started my thing in Hawaiian.  Those things, I’m telling you those things, not to speak badly of people, uncharitably, but because they all went into the things I did in Hawai‘i from then on.


Were there other institutions like that that you felt had a debased idea of Hawaiian or…?


No.  I think they just didn’t give a damn about Hawaiians.  Those were the only ones who really were interested in Hawaiians.


How about the Bishop Museum?


Well, yes.  I wrote about Buck,18 who was the Bishop Museum for me, that is, a man who was first himself, shall we say, an aborigine that was from New Zealand or Australia, and at the same time a man who knew his job; knew his job in the sense in those days that people made lists of objects, ancient objects and periods by going on by even the material that the objects were made of.  And I don’t know.  I didn’t know enough as a, as an ethnologist, if you want, to be interested in Buck as an ethnologist.  But I was just interested in him as a human being who had lived and could live that Pacific life to the full when he wanted.


How about when we first came here?  They had those kind of montages or tableaus in the main hall.  I remember your once saying that you’d been a little shocked to see all of those Hawaiian art objects being used as props.


Well, that’s true, but it was better than not seeing them at all.


But did you feel that that was sufficiently respectful of those art works to use them that way?


Well, at least they were being perceived.  I think that you really have not known, or you were too small to pay attention.  The Hawaiians were not in Hawai‘i; they didn’t exist for most people.  That was before the state even came in.  And honestly, one nice thing: the money matter, how to make money out of people, didn’t exist either, which is nice and, in a way, was Hawaiian.  And the other thing that made things pleasant was that people had missionary manners, which doesn’t mean that they are Hawaiian manners, but the missionaries had been, as I said, converted by the Hawaiians to a certain smoothness and charitableness that certainly they didn’t have when they were in New England.


Let’s talk a minute about Huc Luquiens.  You said that you early got interested in his things.


Well, I found him—not to begin with, not as an etcher—I found him as head or ex-head of the Art Department.  And I found the—I told you that too—the very small accessories that he used to teach History of Art: four hundred slides on glass, which were good, well chosen.  And he’s really the man who created the Art Department.  Lots of people bettered the Art Department, but to create is one thing, to better is something else, and I admired him for that.  And then he was after all French, I was French, and we managed pretty well together.  The first study I made really was around Choris and the sketches of Choris.  The whole thing was never shown.  It was in the basement of the Academy,19 that is, the things related to Hawai‘i.  I read what articles there was on it, and some of them are by Huc, and especially the one that Huc had written on the portraits of Kamehameha and in fact the drawings.  I went to different solutions, if you want.  And that thing was a sort of a link between us.  After I told him what I had found out and whatnot, so he went and looked at the drawings and, I always remember, he came out of the basement and told me, “What you said, you know—there’s nothing to it.”  So that was…those things are a link.  It’s not a question of being the same, but sometimes of a person having different ideas but on the same subject.  OK, Johnny, there.


Is that enough?  OK.  Thank you very much, Papa.

↑ 1

The tape of this interview was unclear in places.

↑ 2

For the cultural milieu of Hawai‘i from 1949 into the early 1950s, see John Charlot, “Jean Charlot and Classical Hawaiian Culture,” Journal of Pacific History 41 (June 2006): 61–80.

↑ 3

Juliette May Fraser (1887–1983) was a Honolulu-born painter and printmaker whose murals can be found today at the Hawai‘i State Public Library (main branch) and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

↑ 4

Madge Tennent (1889–1972) was an English-born artist and art educator known for her distinctive representations of Polynesian women.  In 1929 she joined with fellow female Honolulu artists Juliette May Fraser, Juanita Vitousek, and four others who exhibited collectively as “The Seven.”

↑ 5

The Chemistry Building (now Bilger Hall) frescoes are:  Richard Lucier, Fire, 1951; David Asherman, Water,1952; Juliette May Fraser, Air, 1953; Sueko Kimura, Earth, 1953, Bilger Hall, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

↑ 6

The word is unclear on the tape.

↑ 7

Bernice Judd (1903–1971) was librarian of the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library from 1928 to 1961, and is remembered for her archival expertise and for her generosity with her historical knowledge.  Judd co-authored the posthumously published Hawaiian Language Imprints, 1822–1899 (1978) which utilized years of Judd’s extensive notes on the Hawaiian-language books in the HMCS library collection.

↑ 8

French artist and writer, Jacques Arago (1790–1855), came to Hawai‘i in 1819 aboard the Uranie.  Coming ashore just months after the death of Kamehameha I, Arago witnessed a Hawai‘i in bereavement and on the verge of climactic changes in its political and social life.

↑ 9

Margaret Titcomb (1891–1982) served as head librarian at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum from 1931 to 1969 and is credited with building its library holdings into one of the great Pacific libraries.  Titcomb also wrote prolifically in the field of Pacific natural history.

↑ 10

Vladimir Ossipoff (1907–1998) has been called Hawai‘i’s most important modern architect.  His distinctive designs take advantage of their location’s particular topography, light, and microclimates.  For Ossipoff’s collaboration with Charlot see Spencer Leineweber, “A Case Study in Collaboration: The Associated Architects,” in Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Modernism, ed. Dean Sakamoto (New Haven: Yale UP, 2007).

↑ 11

On Strike at the Capitol; Refuse Collectors; Hospital Laundry; The Strike in Nu‘uanu; Road and Board of Supply Workers; Cafeteria Workers and Custodians, 1970–1975, ceramic tile mural, first four panels listed are each 11 × 13 ft., last two panels listed are 8 × 13 ft., School Street façade of United Public Workers Building, Honolulu, Hawai‘i (renamed the Henry B. Epstein Building in 2006).  Isami Enomoto was the ceramicist for this six-panel mural.

↑ 12

The Kamehameha Schools’ first campus opened in 1887 and was established for the education of Hawaiian children under the terms of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s (1831–1884) will.

↑ 13

Huc-Mazelet Luquiens (1881–1961) was an American printmaker and art educator who came to Hawai‘i in 1917.  Luquiens later formed the University of Hawai‘i’s first Art Department and served as its chair from 1936 to 1945.

↑ 14

Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s will established a trust that is today Hawai‘i’s largest private landowner.

↑ 15

The Massie case.  See David E. Stannard, Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case (2005).

↑ 16

Don D. Kilolani Mitchell (1906–1989) was a teacher, scholar, and writer recognized for his work on the “cultural peaks” of precontact Hawaiians.  In his latter years, Mitchell was Hawaiian Studies Special Consultant at Kamehameha Schools and an Associate in Hawaiian Culture at Bishop Museum.

↑ 17

The word is unclear on the audiotape.

↑ 18

New Zealand-born Sir Peter Henry Buck, or Te Rangi Hiroa (1877–1951), was a physician, politician, anthropologist, and leading scholar of Polynesian cultures.  The son of a Māori mother and Irish father, Buck was the director of Bishop Museum from 1936 to 1951.

↑ 19

The Honolulu Academy of Arts, established 1927.