Jean-Gabriel Charvet and Joseph Dufour,
Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique wallpaper, before 1829
A new article in British Art Studies by Tim Barringer provides a history of recent trends in landscape art history. In this century, he explains, there has been a strong focus on art and empire, influenced by Edward Said’s Orientalism, and analysis of paintings made far from Europe, which reveal 'the impediments offered to the totalizing “colonial picturesque” by local geographies'. He then describes a recent artwork that I was looking at only this weekend:
'The work of contemporary indigenous artists increasingly offers critical reflections on the continuing power of landscape as a contested space open to multiple interpretations, and as a site of historical and contemporary violence. Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected], (2015–2017), on display at the time of publication in the exhibition Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, responds to the historical provocation of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a scenic coloured wallpaper in twenty panels, created in 1804 by Joseph Dufour on the basis of imagery from the Pacific voyages of James Cook (Les Voyages du Capitaine Cook was proposed as an alternative title for the paper). Reihana’s panoramic video spanning 26 metres embraces the “monarch of all I survey” viewpoint of the painted panoramas of the late eighteenth century, but inserts speaking, singing, and moving figures to contest the silent, stereotypical representations of indigenous people in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources.'
At the Royal Academy, you encounter this video panorama towards the end of the exhibition and I found it quite hard to drag myself away. Figures like Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Chief Kalani'opu'u are seen in various moving tableaux as the viewpoint pans steadily round. The original wallpaper was not on display in the exhibition (the National Gallery of Australia has an example) - perhaps it would have been out of place among so many beautiful objects from the islands. In an interview in the Guardian, Lisa Reihana describes its design as
'“a concoction, a fabulation invented in someone else’s elsewhere”. The greenery, for example, was transplanted not from Polynesia but from South America, which Jean Gabriel Charvet, the Frenchman who designed the wallpaper, had recently visited. Similarly, the idealised, pale-skinned locals are dressed in neoclassical costumes inspired more by what had recently been dug up at Pompeii than by anything from Hawaii or Tahiti.'In Pursuit of Venus was previously shown at the Venice Biennale and has its own website (it even has an Instagram feed, although there are no posts on it yet...) Tim Marlow, the RA Director, calls it 'stupendous' in an interview with Lisa Reihana, viewable on the RA's site. Excellent as it is, there are many more wonders in the show which I could mention but which go beyond the remit of this blog, from the Brancusi-like male deity sculpture tino aitu to a Tobi Island necklace of sea-urchin spines. As Jenny Uglow wrote in her review, 'Oceania is a powerful demonstration of art’s capacity to fight the tide of loss, honoring tradition, reclaiming places, histories, and identities, and opening the way to the future.'