“The Universe is Created”
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Gauguin’s emotional prints open up a cosmic hagiography

Galleries / For youngsters growing up in Honolulu before the Hawaiian Renaissance revived an eye and an ear for our own traditions, Paul Gauguin’s “Two Nudes on a Tahitian Beach” in the Honolulu Academy of Arts made art relevant to our daily lives. If the models in this large oil painting had been wearing bikinis, they could, with the sandbar and shorebreak behind them, have been contemporary girls in Waianae or along the North Shore. They are that real and immediate and unconscious of their beauty. Clearly, the painting belongs here, yet Anna Rice Cooke had to fight to acquire it in 1938, according to Lesa Griffith, the Academy’s director of communications. “The Board at the time did not want to purchase a portrait of two naked brown women,” Griffith says.

As it turns out, the Academy has other treasures–10 woodcut prints on paper–by the French expatriat, on exhibit through April 1. Made in 1893-94 to illustrate Gauguin’s journal Noa Noa (fragrance), the dynamic tableaus with names like “The Universe is Created” and “Nave Nave Fenua (Fragrant Isle)” animate human figures, animals, flora, waves, mountains, gods and demons in a panoply that prefigures Symbolism and Surrealism while harkening back to Bosch.

Worth bearing in mind, though, is that, like books of hours, “These were all created for people to live with. To have the whole set, I think, is kind of special,” Griffith says. Pulled by the artist and his son Pola, the prints are worth seeing and revisiting several times. Included, on loan, is the small but splashy oil “Tahitians by a River,” which could have been painted along Oahu’s Windward shore.