Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Representations: A Very Fishy Painting


Hubert Vos, Study of Hawaiian Fish (1898)
Honolulu Academy of Arts

Dutch painting is world-renowned for its incredible still lifes: I am thinking of the many seventeenth century paintings I have seen in American art museums. A dark, nearly black, room is punctured by a table and on the table is a cornucopia of foodstuffs: not just your normal fruits and breads, but also dead birds, dead mammals. Sometimes it looks as if the most egregious hunt ever has just taken place, and the most gluttonous meal of all time is about to commence.

I think that Dutch painter Hubert Vos (1855-1935) engaged this tradition in a very clever way in his 1898 painting, Study of Hawaiian Fish. But why Hawaiʻi? What was a man like Vos doing there in the first place?

The Painter and the Princess

Apparently, Vos, who was born in the Netherlands, and had worked in England during the 1880s and early 1890s, had made his way to the United States sometime during the 1890s. Meanwhile in Hawaiʻi, American businessmen had overthrown the century-old Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, ousting Queen Liliʻuokalani from power. I do not know very much about this time period in Hawaiian history as of yet, but simply enough: U.S. President Grover Cleveland abhorred that Americans had overthrown the indigenous Hawaiian government. He offered himself as an ally to Liliʻuokalani to help restore the Hawaiian Kingdom. Queen Liliʻuokalani did not visit her unusual ally of the moment (the U.S. government), however, because the Republic of Hawaiʻi (the new government led by President Sanford Dole, cousin to the pineapple guy, James Dole) had placed her under house arrest at ʻIolani Palace.

Statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani in downtown Honolulu. 
Interestingly, she stands facing the Hawaiʻi State Capitol building. I like to think that she is there to remind state government workers that they are illegal occupiers of her country.

View of ʻIolani Palace, the royal palace of the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1882 to 1893, the site of Liliʻuokalani's house arrest in 1895-96, and today a beautifully restored historic site that is open to the public.

All of this is to say that when Liliʻuokalani was finally released from house arrest in 1896, she made her way to the United States to meet President Cleveland and devise a strategy for taking back Hawaiʻi. Traveling with Liliʻuokalani to Washington, D.C. was another woman, Princess Eleanor Kaikilani Graham. According to a New York Times article about their sensational romance, Vos, the painter, met Graham, the princess, while she was in Washington, and on the third day, he asked her to marry him.

Vos and his Hawaiian wife planned a sensational world-tour honeymoon, including visiting Hawaiʻi, where apparently Vos had never been before. They visited Hawaiʻi in 1898.

Vos in Hawaiʻi

Vos visited Hawaiʻi at a remarkable time in history. The year he visited, 1898, Hawaiʻi was handed over to yet another government, this time to the United States. President Cleveland was now out of office, and the forces in Washington, ratcheting up for the Spanish-American War, including a major front in the Philippines, saw Hawaiʻi as a most valuable territory, as a coaling station for naval boats, as well as a source of sugar and other profitable commodities.

Vos' Hawaiʻi was also remarkably diverse, with haole (Europeans and Euro-Americans), as well as Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian peoples crowding out the remaining Hawaiians, of which perhaps less than 40,000 remained in the islands due to disease, intermarriage, and emigration. And furthermore, his wife, Kaikilani, and her kin, once affiliated with the Hawaiian monarchy, now had no special status in society. In short, following the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and continuing after Hawaiʻi became a US territory in 1898, Hawaiian people were increasingly marginalized from politics, business, and society.

Thus, Vos' portraits of common Hawaiian people are all the more remarkable. One of his portraits is of a Hawaiian troubadour, ʻukulele in hand, with quite the Iberian-style regalia on for show. How remarkable that this man, whomever he is, has adopted an instrument brought by Portuguese immigrants just a decade earlier - migrants who came to work on the sugar plantations - and has made the instrument, and the look, his own. You wonder: who he is playing for? Is he a common laborer putting on a special show for Vos' portrait? Or does he live in Honolulu, making his living by entertaining tourists as a professional minstrel? Some clues are offered in this insightful blog article I found on the website Nalu Music.

Hubert Vos, Hawaiian Troubadour (1898)
Honolulu Academy of Art

It is not clear where Vos stayed while in Hawaiʻi, but he apparently spent much time near fishermen. His portrait of ʻIokepa, a young man engaged in the fishing industry shows the young Hawaiian seemingly carrying something - perhaps a basket full of fish - as he looks away from the portraitist, either disturbed by Vos' interruption of his work, or embarrassed by Vos' desire to witness him and his labor. Where the troubadour, above, may have been the type of Hawaiian who most haole (foreigners) noticed on the streets of Honolulu, this young man must have been most invisible to haole who could have cared less about the labor that supported their diet and/or economy.

Hubert Vos, ʻIokepa, Hawaiian Fisher Boy (1898)
Honolulu Academy of Arts

A Very Fishy Painting

I, however, am most interested in Vos' painting, Study of Hawaiian Fish. According to David Forbes, this still life showcases 57 varieties of local fish and crustaceans. I assume that all the species shown were marketable ones that were commonly harvested and consumed by Hawaiians and foreigners. But perhaps not. I doubt that Vos was able to see all 57 of these species at the fish market in Honolulu (or wherever he was), and perhaps instead he used some naturalists' collections as the source of his fishy designs. Or perhaps he used a publication of Hawaiian fish taxonomy. I cannot ascertain if Vos has painted these species accurately. Perhaps some of them are imaginary species that he concocted in the studio. But for the meantime, let's take Vos' word for it and assume his painting speaks only truths about Hawaiʻi's offshore ocean ecology!

An aged Hawaiian man, shirtless - a hard-working laborer - dumps a remarkable cornucopia of sea life out onto a table. His lauhala basket - made of woven pandanus (hala) tree leaves - appears wholly incapable of holding that many creatures inside it. He is some kind of "superman" fisherman, having captured so many remarkable things in one basket. Indeed, Vos' fisherman has few tools of trade: a fishing net hanging in the background; a large calabash pot, reminiscent of a poi bowl. And the black background, so reminiscent of seventeenth century Dutch still life, actually appears to comprise schools of fish jumping and swimming through space. Oh the wondrous bounty of these waters! Right?

I think of Vos as a portraitist; indeed, his other Hawaiian paintings are all portraits of common laborers in their various costumes, engaged in acts of labor, whether it be performing for the public, or fishing for someone's dinner. Study of Hawaiian Fish is also a portrait. It is a portrait of a man who is nearly pushed out of the frame of his own scene. I think the old man represents the dying Hawaiian people - as it may have appeared to Vos and Kaikilani at the time. The Hawaiian people were literally being pushed off of their own stage by Americans, who, above all else, had an agenda of economic and environmental exploitation for these islands. I don't think the fishing industry was really that big of a deal in 1898 - not compared to sugar and rice production - but we must consider the great mess of sea life on this table to be representative of American capitalist desires for exploitation of Hawaiʻi's resources. It was in the territory's best interests from 1898 forward to have a clear and complete taxonomic survey of the islands' biological resources at hand, including the 57 varieties of marketable sea creatures. The mess on the table thus represents the colonial project of cataloguing and mastering control of these resources. The old man, and his technology, on the other hand, are "old school": they represent a Hawaiian tradition that had lasted from ancient times to the 1890s, of subsistence on fish and poi, staples of the traditional Hawaiian diet. But the 57 species on the table are too many and too large to ever fit in his simple basket: just like the haole and other foreign peoples, and their agency, were becoming too great and too powerful to be contained any longer by the Hawaiian nation.

In Study of Hawaiian Fish, Vos captured his subject - the elderly Hawaiian man, perhaps the Hawaiian nation itself - in a most difficult moment of transition. It was unclear at the time - in 1898 - what U.S. annexation would mean for Hawaiʻi and its people. But clearly, the imminent future could no longer fit into the fisherman's simple lauhala basket.

For more on Hubert Vos and visual representations of Hawaiʻi, see:

David W. Forbes, Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and its People, 1778-1941 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992).

And of course, visit the Honolulu Academy of Art (if, and when, you are in Hawaiʻi), or visit their website online.

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