Fascinating Video at the de Young Museum
By DeWitt Cheng
“We hoped that … a studious man reading the history of the voyages … might think himself, by casting his eyes around him, in the presence of the depicted people.”
– French wallpaper artist, Joseph Dufour
An unforgettable experience awaits visitors to the de Young Museum from now through Jan. 5, 2020. Installed in the second-floor galleries, Lisa Reihana’s monumental video projection, In Pursuit of Venus [infected], takes on nothing less than the history of western colonization in the South Pacific and – by extension, for these politically charged times – the clash between civilizations. And it does all this beautifully and poetically, without pedantry or preaching.
The huge panorama, a slowly moving painted landscape more than 70 feet long and 12 feet tall, illuminated by five projectors, carries vignettes from stage right to stage left of live costumed actors portraying Tahitian men and women and English sailors. The de Young has acquired the piece, so let’s hope that this masterpiece is displayed often; along with the Friede collection of Oceanic art, displayed nearby. It is one of the treasures of the museum, supplementing and complementing the work of European and American artists, the currently unfashionable servants of imperialism, in the main collection.Reihana is an artist of Maori descent whose investigations of history and culture have been acclaimed in Australia. Some 14 years ago she saw in a museum there a copy of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (the savages of the Pacific Sea), a French neoclassical wallpaper made in 1804-6 portraying the life of Tahitians in 1773, when Capt. James Cook stopped at that island on his second voyage (1772-5). The de Young or Legion of Honor has displayed portions of the wallpaper mural before in its period rooms, but this is the first time to my knowledge that the entire piece, eight feet tall by almost 40 feet in length, block-printed in 20 sections in opaque watercolor on paper and comprised of a thousand woodcuts, has been shown in its entirety.
Les Sauvages was a mammoth undertaking worthy of the Age of Exploration, combining the efforts of a team: two English expedition artists, William Hodges and John Webber; a talented designer and printer, Jean-Gabriel Charvet; and the luxury-goods company that backed the project, Dufour et Compagnie.
Even nearly 200 years later, the wallpaper remains attractively colorful – pristine at least to the casual glance – with its representation of the newly discovered noble savages appealing, even if it is filtered through the aesthetic standards of the time. The Tahitians are depicted in the stately poses of Greco-Roman statuary, refined and codified by Old Master painters over three centuries, with some of their costumes tending toward the classically inspired Empire fashion of the time. Dufour claimed that artistic license was needed “to please the eye and excite the imagination” and the wallpaper started a decorating trend among the wealthy and cultivated.
Reihana’s interpretation of the wallpaper mural, six to 10 years in the making (depending on which article you trust), is no less ambitious or epic. As the stylized paradisiacal landscape, derived from Dufour’s wallpaper, scrolls slowly to the left, we see the actors and dancers portraying the Tahitians and English characters engaged in everyday activities – dancing, singing, flirting and fighting, even standing idly and interacting with members of the opposite culture. These encounters are sometimes peaceable (as when Cook tries to explain a telescope), or one of the expedition artists sits enthralled by a Polynesian totem that could almost have been cribbed from Gauguin; occasionally they are violent, as English soldiers detain a Tahitian man, or an English officer attempts to abduct a Tahitian and … is stabbed to death. This was Cook’s fate, but not in Tahiti in 1773, but rather Hawaii in 1779. Artistic license, again.
But if cultural clashes often result in the destruction and genocide, and even genetically transmitted cultural trauma, as the recent controversy over Victor Arnautoff’s 1935 George Washington High School murals reminds us, Reihana’s digital-scroll does the audience the favor of respecting its intelligence, open-mindedness and curiosity. This high-tech tableau vivant, 19th century form of intellectually improving entertainment in which live costumed actors imitated famous paintings, assumes its audience is capable of regard for all cultures with equanimity, like Enlightenment philosophes, without having to exalt our own.
The recorded dialogue is subtle, as it has to be when six or seven scenes are continuously onstage, so that we are drawn into the mini-dramas even as we are attracted by the next, or last mini-play. We are involved, but only as ghostly observers of these phantoms momentarily brought to life. The sound varies from birdsong to synthesized orchestral scores with occasional drum crescendos, but again everything happens at once; there is no tragic/narrative as in the conquest films “Apocalypto” and “The Mission.”
The stylistic disparity between the painted and obviously artificial backgrounds or sets and the filmed live action curiously makes the action more vivid; we are not alienated, but drawn in. The contrast between live and painted realities was used spectacularly in Lech Majewski’s 2011 film, The Mill and the Cross, employing Pieter Breughel’s 1564 painting “The Procession to Calvary” as a backdrop to examine the complexities of history and art; I would be surprised if that film, which featured Rutger Hauer as Breughel, had not influenced Reihana; the cosmic viewpoint certainly recalls Breughel’s paintings. But her accomplishment, with its unforced references to a natural paradise without social constraints, including the resultant transmission of venereal disease, is still miraculous.
Accompanying the wallpaper mural and the video projection are digital images of 12 engravings by John Keyse Sherwin, based on John Webber’s renderings, published in 1784 as A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean … covering all three of Cook’s heroic expeditions, with a copy of the book on display in a vintage vitrine.
For more information, visit deyoung.famsf.org.
DeWitt Cheng is a San Francisco-based critic, curator, teacher and blogger.