Could you tell us something about how your mother and father helped you with drawings or whatever relationship they had with drawing and painting?
I think, John, we looked at some of the original paintings of my mother and some of the drawings that my father used to do. I think both of them helped a great lot, or I should say, both of them oriented me towards drawing and painting. My mother was a painter who had gone through a number of the academies of the time, which would mean around…when she was in her teens, that is, still at the end of the eighties. She had gone to academies, and she had worked under some of the academic masters. I think Gérôme was one of them and Gérôme had taken a particular interest in her work. And she had on the walls of her studio a nude done from the model that had been admired by Gérôme. I think he had in part touched up one of the arms to show her how things should be done. And she did some paintings that were exhibited at the salon that were singled out, and so on, and they were around in our Paris house; and in Poissy, the summer house of my grandfather, there were some pictures that she had done, and she had a little studio in summer there that was full of the paraphernalia of studios in the nineteenth century with plaster casts, easels, and so on, and she did a number of sketches or portraits of myself when I was young. I don’t know what happened to the portraits, but I remember posing for her. When I say young, I was very young. And of course, as soon as I could put my hands on the colors and so on, I started myself along those lines. It seems to be a nice vocation of a sort.
And my father (all those things are when I was quite young) who had been born in Moscow and spoke Russian—of course, it was, I would say, nearly his language, at least on the same plan with French—would tell me stories from the old Russian folklore and illustrate them. He would illustrate them as he was speaking, and of course, there again, I looked at the creation of art, that is, the making of art that went with his words, and I remember some things about a little white horse, and it was in the forest, pine forest, and he would draw a suggestion of the pine forest and then the wooden, really log cabins of the Russians with their typical roof and folk sculptures, and so on. And as he went on, he described and put down the creatures that were part of the tale, so that he had quite some ability in drawing, and when he wasn’t busy with chess playing—he was a great chess player—he would from time to time take some object or some flower piece that was around and make a drawing from nature in color with the color pencils which to me was a marvelous thing to see being done. So both my mother and father, by example, I would say, not especially by words, not especially by urging me—I didn’t need any urging—are at the base of my career as a painter.
It’s interesting that your father used drawing to illustrate stories because that is a certain part of your own interest in art, that art can tell a story. You’ve spoken several times about liturgical art telling stories, for instance.
Well, yes, now that you mention it, I think the way that not only words but situations are tied up with art, which, of course, was true of my father’s Russian stories and is true of liturgical art and was true of the Marxist art that my Mexican friends did later on in Mexico is something that I remain quite conscious of as so many of my contemporaries in art have been shy of telling stories and have considered storytelling an inferior form of art. But I never did; on the contrary, I think or I hope that I did some of my best work when I was sort of propped up by a story on a scaffold of storytelling. My research on the early history of Hawai‘i for that mural at the bank1 was a very serious one, and I really tried to introduce in there both portraits and situations that were true to the times that I represented. I like storytelling. And to go back to the idea that I was haunting the Louvre on weekends when I was very young, the great classic French paintings, for example, Poussin, are much more elaborated on the storytelling part than similar subject matter even when it is treated by the great Italians. A man like Titian used, of course, storytelling, that was what his patrons expected, and he has bacchanals and so on, but they are really a pretext to what we could call freehand painting, while Poussin all his life, it seems to me, fights against freehand painting to establish a solid storytelling. And that is true of my things, too. In all my murals I have been very careful to establish storytelling, and if I had to choose, I would say, between an artistic effect and a proper telling of the story, I’ve always chosen the proper telling of the story. And that, I think, comes from many things, from my father telling me when I was a child those Russian stories, from Poussin in the Louvre having a similar serious attitude on his responsibility as a storyteller in paint. And when I reached Mexico and my friends were just out of Abstract Cubism—men like Rivera, for example—and forcing themselves because of their Marxist convictions to tell stories, I didn’t see why it was so painful for them to go from abstract or Cubist art to storytelling. I was all ready, myself, to tell stories.
I remember at the bank mural there was that problem of the kahuna whom you had originally drawn to be sitting in front of the stone, and Hawaiians objected, saying that the kahuna could never turn his back to the stone, so you changed him, even though you were happier with the kahuna in front of the stone. Would you regard that as an example of putting storytelling above pure art value? Or could you give me other examples?
I think that’s a good example, and it goes really a little deeper than art, that is, it goes into what you have called liturgical art. Liturgical art is a sort of relation of man to God. We think of it usually, for us anyhow, for me with my background, as being Christian, Catholic art, church art, but, of course, all the people who have dabbled, I would say, in establishing a bridge between God or the gods and themselves have had to go through such things, so that the God-stone that you are speaking about, that is, the stone in which the god has established for the moment anyhow his house, his home, was something sacred and had to be treated with respect, and it’s not just historically that I didn’t want that kahuna to turn his back on God, but I didn’t want to represent him as a fellow who, even though his profession was faith, would have shown a lack of faith by that attitude. So it goes very far in touching other points than storytelling. I suppose one of them is really the relation of the artist and God.
You did a painting when you were very young of Art at the Service of Theology.2 This, you know, seems to be an attitude that you have had since very early. But you also refused, when you were thinking of becoming a monk in Mexico, to do bad art for the service of theology. Do you feel that there is a big tension there between liturgical needs and the needs of art, or do you feel that they can be reconciled or that good art, if you want, is already liturgical, as some people have said?
Well, I think that we are going out of our subject here into other things, but to answer the question, I believe that art has a virtue. I don’t know if virtue should be understood in a regular theological context, but maybe mana, the old Hawaiian word, is closer. That is, good art encloses a certain power that comes to it from God, or if you want to use the pagan term, from the gods, and bad art lacks, is negative as far as that godly power is concerned. So it seems to me, of course, an absurdity to pretend to praise God with the form of art that would not contain Him, that would not accept Him and reject Him, so to speak. That’s in a way why I think that the only liturgical art in the sense of the word doesn’t depend on subject matter but on being good art. The thing that you refer to is a little twisted. It wasn’t a question of doing bad art; it was a question of making copies of a very good piece of art which is Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. The only thing is that the idea of passing the rest of my life making copies of Our Lady of Guadalupe didn’t seem the best possible use of my gifts as an artist, and I balanced the two things, that is if I could not choose my own proper gifts as being part of a community, of a monastery, then perhaps I was not made for a monk. That is, my own vocation may have been one of going my own way and yet be as ordained, so to speak, and, well, as religious as that of a man who is a better religious in a community. I really thought I would be terribly bored doing continuous copies of the Guadalupe, though in itself it is an excellent painting. I have had a great patience with ecclesiastics who do not understand, do not realize that there is a real spiritual meaning and spiritual values, some positive, some negative, depending on the sort of art, in art, and some really don’t know that at all, or don’t understand it at all, and it’s strange, because through the sacraments, for example, they know very well that the spiritual powers can reside specifically in certain matters, let’s say, water, or oil, or even the flame of the Paschal candle, and so on. And yet they don’t add two and two, so to speak, and see that spirit in the material with which works of art are made. For them it’s a little bit the icing on the cake that can be left aside, that is not needed.
Well, it’s interesting how often you use really religious language to describe what you wanted to do in your life. The word vocation is one that you often use, and there seems to be a very early coupling in your thought between religion and art. Could you tell me a little bit about how that happened? When did you first start putting art and religion together and why did you put them together?
Well, it’s a little hazy because of my memories of my very early time, but the first time that I did link the two is not particularly conducive to what people would call religion now. I must have been four years old or so, I was very, very young, and I had a book of sketches, and those sketches to me were sort of sacred. That is, I didn’t like grownups or even my sister who was four years older than me to have a look at those drawings because they had a certain character of sacredness; they were my gods, I’m sorry to say. I had made little people who had usually human bodies and animal heads. I remember very well one of them with a horse head. And then in their hands I would put something for their nourishment. I remember putting a can of sardines in the hands of one of those little gods. And the thing for me was so mysterious that I hardly wanted to look at it. Those, of course, are my earliest memories of linking art and religion, and even though it’s a little twisted, that’s the way it was. But as I grew up, of course, I was dazzled by the things that I saw in churches; some of them are pretty bad things. When I revisited France, for example, some of the things at the time that dazzled me when I was young were not very good. Some others were extraordinarily good, for example, the whole church cathedral of Poissy where we were every summer is a beautiful example of Gothic, and I would go in there and absorb really the beauty of the Gothic things, not only the sculptures or the reredos, the sort of cut-out wood sculptures that are around the altar, but also the old stones and that feeling of pertaining to the ancient times, of being at ease in ancient centuries. And I had the same feeling in the Louvre a little later on still because I have never been able to think in terms of time past and time the present and time the future—and because of the quality of certain artisans and artists, maybe the people who sculptured the stones in Poissy; and to go back to Poussin or the room of the primitives in the Louvre with men like Paolo Uccello and Giotto and so on. I was really much closer to these men than to many people that were alive, artists that I met in my lifetime. I think I still am the same; I still am a little confused about who is alive and who is dead in art, and it is not a question of being above the ground or under the ground.
Where did you get the idea of coupling human bodies with animal heads? You had many books of art in your home. Had you been looking at Egyptian statues or Aztec drawings?
No, I think that’s before I had been looking at anything at all. I think I was just off the bottle, and it would interest some people who are trying to see what the cavemen were doing when they started religion. I think it was directly out of myself that I created that religion even though, of course, ancient sculptors have created similar things. But in case it is any good to the people who study religion, the fact that the fellow had a human body and a horse head, to go back to that little guy, didn’t mean at all that he was a horse in any way or a man in any way, but coupling the two into an impossible being suggested certainly a mystery above anything that can be described. And sometimes I am very unhappy with missionaries when they go to places, for example, Pacific islands—I am looking now at the story of the conversion of the Gambier Islands3—in that they look at the idols and they describe them as monstrous, as obscene. They don’t realize the element of mystery that they should have learned because in Christian churches and so on, they have all those symbols that would look just as monstrous to pagans as pagan symbols to Christians. I think we should realize that God can really get into all the nooks and cracks of everybody’s conscience and that art, however strange it can look, may be inhabited by a good spirit of a sort and a certain power regardless of how unusual it seems to people who haven’t looked at it before. That goes also for works of art that have no religious or liturgical intent.
Really, your whole view about art as containing mana is a view that one finds in so-called primitive cultures but isn’t one that is normal in Christian circles. In fact, this whole view, which is really centrally important to you, does not seem to have come to you from, say, your Catechism or your normal Christian teaching, but seems to be something that you either picked up from someplace else or something that you arrived at, your own conclusions. I know that you use this for instance in the play on Kawelo?4 I am sorry, the name escapes me again; the last of your Hawaiian plays which was the first published about the Hawaiian artist. You expressed that view very beautifully in that. Was this really original with you, or is it something that you had at that time sort of vague forebodings of, but the formulations of which you picked up later in studies of primitive cultures?
Well, I really don’t know, but it seems to me that it is so obvious that I don’t see how people can have any other idea. That is, it’s one of those things I haven’t arrived at but have taken for granted; you take for granted, well, your feet and your hands, and I took for granted that art was a home for God or, in another sense, for the gods. It may come really from my roaming around in the Louvre. I would go in the dark corners of the Egyptian, for example, exhibits, and I remember the eyes of those fellows that were very often made up so that they would shine in the light like real eyes looking at me, and I was quite sure that there was something behind. Of course, it was an illusion; they were carved either in wood or in stone, but I am not so sure that because if you had cut the statue in two and found it was only rock or only wood, it wasn’t the proof of anything because into that cavity of the work of art there was obviously something, something watching and looking. And I looked back, and, as I say, it isn’t anything I arrived at: it was so obvious. And I think that later on and even now, I want to be a little more subtle than those Egyptians, for example, and have a great attention at not painting the eyes in my pictures so that they could look at the people who look at the picture because that seems to me a rather primitive way of suggesting the spirit. It’s very, very rare in my paintings when there are any what you could call “seeing eyes” in the picture. There is always some way of avoiding that presentation of, let’s call it the eyeball, because the spirit should be more secret and less obvious than in that. And that comes from my first experiences not only with Egyptians but, for example, the portraits by La Tour, the pastels of La Tour, which are really all eyes, are the most frightening thing in the world. I don’t like them at all because it seems to me that the dead shouldn’t be so lively, and so on.
Are you conscious of any methods that you do use to present the spirit? I can think of one thing that some people have felt in your work, for instance, the Fijian ones: a little girl said “Why is the man wearing a mask?” And in this childish comment you felt that there was a feeling that there was a mask-like quality to the face that could be connected, say, with dancing masks, African dancing masks, etc., in which also the eyes aren’t prominent. But are you conscious of any—the word devices is a little strong—but of any things that you find yourself doing that do, for you, evoke the spirit in a painting?
Well, it’s not a device, but it is that sense of timelessness that I was referring to. There is something very sad when you look at photographs of people, I would say especially people who are dead now, when you surprise them in one moment, when you take those people around the table with paper hats and balloons and so on and laughing, it doesn’t seem to me the proper presentation or the best presentation of a human being, and the people that I represent should be, that is, to be to my taste, shall we say, not people caught in one moment but a succession of moments that sometimes annul each other as far as the expression is concerned so that the result—some people have called it sculpturesque or monumental and so on—is such that it isn’t one moment but a superposition, so to speak, of moments representing different moods and so on, and there is a certain neutral effect; that is, the fellow very rarely will be definitely laughing or definitely crying and so on, and he will look unnatural in a way because we see people in the instant, in the moment, and it takes just a little, I wouldn’t say a little thinking, but a little cautious approach to realize that the man is not the man of the moment but a more timeless type of man so that every people that I represent, I try to represent them—well, I don’t want to get too romantic on that thing—but with a dignity that will be proper to them after they are dead. So that I am not a man who believes that people are contained in a snapshot.
I remember one thing that I once noticed in your church in—not in Detroit but in Farmington—not Farmington, the one for Father Torzewski.5 It’s the first time I noticed it, I never had before, that the eyes, each of the eyes on the Christ was looking in a different direction. Of course, the thing was big enough, the painting was big enough so that this didn’t strike one as at all incongruous, but would this be a kind of example of your superposition of moments that the eyes would be doing two different things as if they were in two different moments?
Well, I think that head is so big that you would have to be on the same scale to look at both eyes at the same time. Of course, I don’t know what Christ would do at that size, but he never had to worry about it because he was a proper human size. But that is a monumental thing, just like those colossal statues of emperors and so on which, by faking the scale, force you to fake everything, otherwise it would look wrong.
Let’s go back a moment to storytelling and also gods. There is one place where they come together and that’s in your interest in cartoons and what you say in your Disney lectures6 when somebody asks a question, “Should we just have more realistic things instead of having Dopey and the dog and stuff?” and you said no, this reminds one of totems, of sort of, really, of gods, you say in that. And that has a certain power that you wouldn’t get if you just animated little kids. But there are two questions I want to bring up here. Maybe I should ask the first one first, which is, when you came to the States you were very interested in cartoons, and was this an extension, if you want, of your storytelling, or what were the other elements that were involved in that interest?
Well, cartoons were one of the forms, of course, of storytelling, was one of the forms with balloons and so on where the words and the art were together. But I wouldn’t say I rushed to cartoons as the first form of art, but I was repulsed by something I had never met before, I would say, and that is the art-for-art attitude of most of the American artists when I came here. I came here in 1928. The people I would have taken to more naturally, which were the people of the Ashcan School, had stopped, really, doing the things that we think of when we mention the Ashcan School, that is, the study of the real people that were around them in their real habitat, and the Armory Show or the aftermath of the Armory Show had put everybody on the trail of what they called modern art, so that most of the discussions, most of the paintings painted at the time expressed some sort of esthetic beliefs as against the esthetic beliefs of other people and so on, and they were straight boring for me because I, in France, I had picked up really classicism, let’s say, with Poussin or the paintings of peasants of Le Nain and so on, and I always worked out an art in relation to the people. In Mexico, of course, it was even more obvious that the art of the Mexican Mural Renaissance was of the people and for the people, and it really came to me as a surprise to see that enormous machinery, which included a lot of buying and selling and art lovers and artists preoccupied by what I considered absolutely nothing. That is, a form of art against a form of art seems to me something that you can’t discuss; that is, there is nothing to discuss. And the cartoons, on the contrary, were very close to the American scene. Many of them had exactly all the ways not only of speaking but even in the drawing of being of the American people I had around me. And I was grateful to a few people, John Sloan is one of those that come to mind, even though at the time he had let go of his more biting social comment, but he was a wonderful fellow, and I knew what he was about. I knew what his art, shall we say, had been about before he changed his style. A little later on, I was very grateful to Ben Shahn when he did his show on the Sacco-Vanzetti themes because that was the real thing, that was the people.7 But I was completely disoriented; I tried very hard to understand the work of the people that were considered the top modern masters in America at the time, but there was very little to understand. So folk art in its different forms, and there is, of course, folk art in the United States just as there is in any other country, interested me very much. And the funnies are one of the obvious forms of folk art, and I tried to come closer to the people, for example, by acquiring a taste for hamburgers. That wasn’t easy, and I’m not sure I could quite do it, but my intention was to find a relationship between art and the people in the United States similar to the relation of art and the people in Mexico, similar to the relation of art and the people in the work of the great French masters. And at the time it was nearly impossible to do it. It was only exceptional to have such a thing.
Who were the cartoonists whom you liked the most when you came to the States?
Well, you know that I have a little collection of cartoons here, and my prize possession is the Krazy Kat of Herriman.8 Herriman lived in Los Angeles, and I met him, and it was to me a sense of talking to a master, to a great master. It was nice to be able to have a sense of respect for an artist, which is something that I very rarely could afford with American artists at the time. Only exceptionally—I mentioned John Sloan, I mentioned Ben Shahn, and Herriman perhaps topped them all in his absolute dedication to his particular kind of art.
Tell me about your meeting with Herriman. I didn’t know that you had ever met him.
Well, it wasn’t very formal. We met together in an art gallery. I think your mama is the one who knew him, or arranged it. Anyhow, we talked together, and it was interesting that he had the entire attitude of the great artist. That is, even though he was extremely well-known, he was telling us how the publishers every two–three months or so would have him come to their desk and say that his things had less and less content and they could understand them less and less and that he was fired. So he would go home, and if the cartoon wasn’t published the next day, there were hundreds of letters going to the publishers ordering them to rehire him. He said it happened all the time, and he said he didn’t know how he could change his stories, change his world of Krazy Kat, because it was his own world, and he would act Krazy Kat and say “Just now I am looking for my belly button” and then look in the corners of the gallery for his belly button. He was entirely wrapped up in his own world in the same way that a man like, well, shall we say Raphael or Van Gogh were wrapped in their own world. They couldn’t change it, and they couldn’t get out of it. He was prisoner of his own vision. That is the mark of a great artist.
You also exchanged some drawings with the man who does Steve Canyon,9 and I know that you liked very much the art aspect of Barnaby.
Well, the Steve Canyon man was a professional. He gave a few classes, actually, I think it was in Georgia, on the making of cartoons. I was interested in him as an artisan, that is, as a man who does a good job at the job he has to do. He was a man who was doing, you could say, merchandise with the security of selling it, selling it at a good price. So it’s an entirely different problem from the problem of Herriman, who was a visionary. And that nice drawing I have on—whoever the fairy godfather was, I don’t remember his name—it’s that other fellow who has a lovely feeling of childhood, who hasn’t lost, really, that feeling of childhood and has done lovely books that again come to him naturally and that are not talking down to children, but he himself has that same childish quality and is absolutely sincere about what he does.10 As I said, there were other forms of folk art. Of course, for me the folk art isn’t just the art object but the getting together of people on certain things. I went to baseball; I couldn’t understand it at all, but I enjoyed the enthusiasm of the people. I went to boxing matches and so on and so forth. And the United States that I met on arrival and that I knew was as picturesque, or for me even a little more picturesque, than had been the Mexico that I knew. And I never had a feeling of dullness in the United States. So many people, I’d say, coming from Europe have a feeling that this place is different in the sense that it lacks intense forms of folk art or folk customs and so on. I think, on the contrary, it is reeking with all those things to a point where you hardly can see it because it is so strong.
Early Contacts of Hawaii with Outer World, 1951–1952, fresco, 11 × 67 ft., Bishop Bank (later First National Bank), Waikīkī Branch, Honolulu. Divided into approximately seventy easel-sized panels when the building was destroyed in 1966.
Calvary with St. Thomas Aquinas, 1922, oil on canvas, approximately 60 × 75 in., checklist number 9, destroyed. A preparatory color sketch survives: 1922, oil on canvas, 13 ½ × 25 ½ in., private collection, Honolulu, checklist number 8.
Charlot was transcribing at this time “Journal de Désiré Louis Maigret. Première partie: Les Gambiers, 1834–1840,” now in the Jean Charlot Collection. This research resulted in Jean Charlot, “Le Journal du Picpucien Louis Maigret, 1804–1882, Evêque D’Arathie Et Vicaire Apostolique Des Iles Sandwich. Notes et Analyses,” Journal de la Société des Océanistes: Les Missions dans la Pacifique 25 (December 1969): 320–335. (This article includes changes and corrections.) An English version is also available.
Na‘auao, The Light Within, in Jean Charlot, Three Plays of Ancient Hawaii (Honolulu: U of Hawai‘i P, 1963).
Psalm of the Good Shepherd, 1955, fresco, 16 × 24 ft., Church of the Good Shepherd, Lincoln Park, Michigan. Eleven portable panels forming an arch.
“Pictures and Picture Making: A Series of Lectures” (privately mimeographed by the Disney Studios, Hollywood, 1938).
Ben Shahn (1898–1969). The work Charlot mentions is The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931–1932, twenty-three gouache paintings and two mural panels memorializing the trial and conviction of anarchists Fernando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Also see Jean Charlot, “Ben Shahn,” Hound and Horn, July–September 1933: 632–634.
The fantastic world of Krazy Kat was created by George Joseph Herriman (1880–1944), a New Orleans native of Creole descent whose family had moved to Los Angeles when he was a small boy to escape racial restrictions. The popular comic strip ran in newspapers throughout the United States from 1913 to 1944.
Steve Canyon was a newspaper comic strip created by American cartoonist Milton Caniff (1907–1988) that ran from 1947 to 1988. The title character was an aircraft pilot.
Barnaby (1942–1952; revised 1960–1962) was the much-loved cartoon creation of Crockett Johnson (pen name of David Johnson Leisk, 1906–1975). Johnson also illustrated children’s books, most notably The Carrot Seed (1945) and Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), for which he also wrote the text. He and Charlot exchanged drawings.