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Masterpieces of Polynesian Art – William Hodges – Tahiti Revisited


This series of short articles; The Masterpieces of Polynesian Art, written primarily as a vehicle to introduce novices to the Art of Polynesian and to promote an understanding of Polynesian Asethetics took a sudden shift about eight months after I had started writing them. After some hesitation I decided that to truly understand the story of Polynesia and Polynesian Art it was nessessary to include the art of Europeans, because Europeans are central to understanding the story of Polynesia and its tragedy. Europeans were very much part of the tragedy, but to be fair many Europeans in their struggle to comprend Polynesia and Polynesians contributed a great deal to Polynesian History, in fact our knowledge of Polynesia would be minimal without the writings, researches and observations of those early Europeans. Most Europeans understood that they were witnessing a disappearing world, and most also perceived that their presence was the reason it would vanish. Which is why much of this European Art, I argue should be regarded as Polynesian Art, as is permiated with sense of sadness and loss. These European artists were witnesses to a tragedy, but wished desperately to record the full extent and meaning of what was about to disappear.

If one image could sum up, encaptulate and bear eternal witness to the death of a culture this painting by Wlliam Hodges known as A View taken in the Bay of Oaite Peha, Otaheite, or Tahiti Revisited, would be it. It contains within it a distilation of a feeling of beauty, sadness and loss. It presents this to the viewer without any attempt at false pathos, with nothing contrived, just a true presentation of human existence before we were hurled from the Garden and one man's reaction to it. By Cook's second voyage into the Pacific the serpent was already resident in paradise with the introduction of gonorrhea and possibly syphilis by Wallis and Bougainville and influenza, tuberculosis and smallpox would soon follow. All into a population that had no immunity to European diseases. Wlliam Hodges understood this and it would have been a undercurrent understood by all aboard Resolution and Adventure in 1773 a bare four years after Wallis first dropped anchor in Tahiti.

William Hodges was between 1772 and 1775 the official artist appointed by the Admiralty for James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific Ocean. His history is interesting if not untypical of a minor British artist in that he trained under Richard Wilson who was one of England first pure landscape artists, then worked as a lowly painter of theatrical backdrops, then after his return from the Pacific spent several more years in the employ of the Admiralty, where he completed Tahiti Revisited, then in 1778 under the patronage of Warren Hastings he travelled to India where he remained for 6 years. Afterwards his career declined until following his virtual retirement from painting he involved himself with a bank which failed during the banking crisis of 1797 and in that year he died from what was probably an overdose of laudanum. This brief life of Hodges does not suggest a painter of great talent nor one capable of painting masterpieces, which is true, yet Polynesia has strange effects on artists, inspiring more than a few capable, if otherwise only moderately gifted artists, to reach far beyond their supposed talents.

Johann Zoffany; Self-portrait as David with the head of Goliath 1756

Paul Gauguin was the most obvious of these, but History has been kind to Sydney Parkinson, Charles Goldie, and William Hodges all as a result of their exposure to Polynesia. Gauguin is judged by art historians and critics as the giant amongst these with the other three barely considered as worthy of being mentioned in the same breath, but I believe even as a lifelong admirer of Gauguin, that Tahiti Revisited has more to say about Polynesia that even the best image Gauguin painted. However, before we look at my jusification for the sacrilege of the previous sentence, I would like you to accompany me on a journey backward from the last stroke of the paintbrush on Tahiti Revisited in 1776, to see if we can discover exactly how this painting came into being.

More than anything else if we look at the chain of circumstances that lead directly to the creation of Tahiti Revisited we can attribute it to something that is deeply familiar to people in our modern world; the overblown ego of the celebrity, or perhaps more accurately the overblown ego of someone new to celebrity. Johann Zoffany, the German neoclassical painter was invited by Joseph Banks to accompany him on his second voyage with James Cook to the Pacific. The first should anyone need reminding was probably the greatest and most famous voyage of exploration the world has ever known. Remarkable for not so much its discoveries, but being the first true scientific expedition in history and for the brilliance with which it was accomplished, and even more remarkable for the smoothness with which all members acted together, in harmony, accord and professionalism.

However, after their return the worm of fame entered the brain of Joseph Banks, who as someone who had contributed to its success and was rich, well connected and who wrongly was perceived as leading not just the scientific part of the expedition, but the expetition itself, he received all the glory and found not unremarkably as a young man with a strong libido that he enjoyed it. Thus after 24 months of being feted and tupped Banks's self regard had expanded to delusional propotions, leading to him imagining he could demand and get what he wanted from His Majesty's Admiralty. Which must have made finding his permission to join the expedition suddenly withdrawn and his presumptions stripped bare a mighty comedown. For those who have studied that first famous expedition and read Banks's Journal it is impossible not to like Banks, and regret his folly, and to be fair once his good judgement had re-established itself he retained almost everyone involved's friendship. But the net result was Zoffany who was a far superior painter to William Hodges now withdrew from the 2nd voyage and Hodges took his place. Fate is very strange and history littered with what if's, but I strongly suspect the world lost several masterpieces with Zoffany's withdrawl.

So what of the scene painter who replaced Zoffany; William Hodges's five years with Richard Wilson certainly meant the Admiralty could expect a respectable landscape painter and his subsequent behaviour onboard the ship proves he was a good choice as regards temprement. As regards pay in all probability he was a good a painter as the Admiralty was likely to get on Admiralty pay rates and the Admiralty were not in the business of masterpieces. So, William Hodges shipped out aboard Resolution, for what was to prove for all concerned a gruelling voyage, for this expedition was designed to prove or dispell myths, mainly the fantasies of Alexander Dalrymple and others within the Royal Society determined to cling to the idea of the Great Southern Landmass, or Terra Australis that was supposed to balance the European landmass and presumably stop the world falling off its axis. So Resolution and Adventure set sail for the Antarctic via Cape Town in July 1772, led by James Cook who was far too sensible a man to believe in any Great Southern Landmass, but that did not stop him risking his crew's lives proving it wasn't there.

On the way William Hodges painted the Adventure in the roads before Cape Town with Table Mountain beyond and proved the Admiralty were to get their moneys worth from their official painter and I suspect in the clear light of Southern skies he began to lighten and brighten his palette and thus left Richard Wilson behind and became his own man. Then resupplied in Cape Town the two ships plunged South. On 17 January 1773 the Resolution was the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle which she crossed twice more on the voyage. The third crossing, on 3 February 1774, was to be the most southerly penetration, reaching latitude 71°10? South. Cook undertook a series of vast sweeps across the Pacific proving there was no Terra Australis by sailing over most of its predicted locations. In between having lost the Adventure, the Resolution first spent six weeks in Dusty Sound, in the wild South Western corner of New Zealand, where they took observations and Cook had anything green and vaguely palatable boiled and dosed his men to prevent scury, for which if he had discovered nothing he would have earned the esteem of seamen everywhere for nobody ever in the history of deep water sailing keep their crews free of scurvy before Cook, including Tobias Furneaux, the unimaginative commander of the Adventure.

But it was in Dusty Sound on the 6th of April 1772 that William Hodges met Polynesians for the first time on the north-east point of Indian Island, a Maori family of husband, wife, daughter and a child. The Maori were friendly but wary and in the six weeks in Dusty Sound the British found this remote place had twenty Maori in it. Who these were it would be interesting to know, Kati Mamoe would probably be a reasonable guess. But it was here Hodges painted studies for his first great Polynesian picture Cascade Cove, Dusty Bay which like Tahiti Revisited was actually painted on his return to England in 1775. The idea of combining the Maori and the casade is clearly show in the oil studies but of the several version he completed Cascade Cove, Dusty Bay stands out as the most complete with a unity of structure missing from earlier versions. Of course Hodges had three years to distill this image in his mind and added to this initial contact with Polynesians was all the subsequent experiences in Easter Island, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Niue, Tonga and the southern islands of Hawaii. It would be worthwhile pausing to examine William Hodges attitude to Polynesians. Generally there were two attitudes to Polynesians and to native people that existed on Cook's ships similtaniously, one of the officer class and the other of ordinary seamen. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion from the journals of the three voyages of James Cook that a fair percentage of the below deck seamen on Cook's ships were naked racists. They turned European firearms on native peoples with monotnous regularity whenever the opportunity presented itself. Even when they had long residence or shore leave in Tahiti and on other islands, sleeping nightly with native women. Only Cook's dicipline keep them somewhat in check and as the behaviour of the muntineers of the Bounty proved freed from the constraints of dicipline they would decend into massacre of completely innocent people with very little or no excuse.

The officer class in which we can include William Hodges even though he is really not a Navy man, generally held views very different from ordinary seamen. These views tended to be a distilation of Age of Enlightenment sentiment and it is interested to read Cook's Instructions from the Admiralty which contain the following text: “You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them, making them presents of such Trifles as they may Value inviting them to Traffick, and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard; taking Care however not to suffer yourself to be surprized by them, but to be always upon your guard against any Accidents. You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.” Cook also received further instructions or hints about the indiscriminant use of firemans against native peoples, that ran along similar lines as rules of engagement that most modern armies now use.

But like modern rules of engagement fine sentiments composed in London do not survive reality, but to his great honour Cook who was essentually a humane man tried very hard to stick to the tenor of these instructions, but he could not be everywhere nor once a situation got out of hand could he control it. It is interesting that Cook has in the years since his death, a death caused very much by a situation that got very much out of hand, been critiized in every possible way and from every possible angle, by every persuasion of people, with every possible agenda to push. A fact that suggests he the man on the spot in the most difficult of circumstances got it right most of the time, except in the last exception for which he paid a very high price. But in his journals which he wrote calmly, thoughtfully and with no small amount of sadness and regret, there the real James Cook is to be found, and there freed from the uncontroled actions both his own and of others is a man wholly admirable.

Cook's real sentiments I suspect were shared by William Hodges, the pervasive sadness that permiaties Hodges's paintings suggest a man effected by more that the bright sunlight and atmoshpere skies of the Pacific. This contact with Polynesia and with Polynesians challeged every belief a thinking man had. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject from a multitude of perspecives, but essentually the question is can our ideas of civilization survive contact with the reality of the old us in our original state? In Polynesia with its hansome brown skinned people, its tropical setting, its idealized world of natural people living in a state of Nature and especially with the Polynesian's sexual liberation in complete absence of guilt, this question became the hardest to answer. And when it became obvious to thinking indiviuals that like the snake in the Garden their own presence was poisoning Paradise what then?

I believe that every person who possessed some measure of sentiment on Cook's three voyages was profoundly affected by their experience of Polynesia. Yes, some later changed their minds, and for some sentiment did not survive the reality of Polynesia, and for others circumstances lead them to positions and actions that they once thought repugnant. But others like William Hodges viewed that experience afterwards as life changing and probably struggled to make sense of an experience that affected their previous view of the world. On the 6th of April 1772 when Hodges had his first contact with Polynesians he was a twenty-seven year old single man who had already spent ten years of his life in artistic circles where discussion of Enlightenment ideas would have been the norm. He had further more spend the last nine months in the great cabin of the Resolution constantly in the intelligent company of Johann Reinhold Forster, his son, George, who were the scientists on board, William Wales the astronomer, James Cook and Charles Clerke and even the junior officers, George Vancouver and James Burney were educated men. When weather permitted dinners in the cabin would have been stimulating and primed with wine the conversation if not as sparkling as on that first famous voyage, then there was enough knowledge, education and intellectual firepower in that room for a man of Hodges tastes to be well satisfied. James Cook at that point was a man sure of his talents and secure in his success in the world, and with no small experience with Maori and Tahitians, no doubt he made free of his opinions of Polynesians and his views if the same as expressed in his journals were liberal and generous. This would have primed Hodges to a view of Polynesia that was positive and romantic and looking at his pictures painted after his return from the voyage it is hard to see this opinion was disabused.

Cascade Cove, Dusty Bay 1775

One other point that has not been raised in the Histories of this 2nd voyage, but is there in all the journals is the Hell and Heaven aspect of the constant plunging of the ship into Antarctic waters and then withdrawing to a tropical or in the case of New Zealand a temperate Paradise. If we consider a ship wet from freezing weather at 71°10? South or anywhere below 50° South for that matter without modern thermal clothing, with no heating on board and no hope of drying the ship beyond sunshine and a fair breeze that was even in summer a thousand miles to the North, the mind can barely comprehend the misery and discomfort suffered by everyone on board these ships. The approach of even Fiordland's wild coast and annual 20 feet of rainfall would have been welcome, while balmy, tropic Tahiti must have seemed literally a Heaven on earth. Add to that the thought of fresh food even available in Fiordland or the suculence of tropical fruits and of the fruits of the flesh available in Tahiti and one can see even years afterwards all on board must have struggled to think of Polynesia in any way but in terms of unreality.

This unreality for the crew of the Resolution stayed intact until they returned to Capetown and then it received a serious dent when they learnt that at Grassy Cove in Queen Charlottee Sound the Maori had butchered eleven of the Adventure's crew in what probably started as an overreaction to an incident of theft by the British crew, given their known propencities to violence using firearms and their serious underestimation of the fighting skill of Maori this seems the likely cause. But all unknowing the Resolution headed north to Tahiti for the winter where Tahiti Revisited has its genisis.

There are several early versions of Tahiti Revisited sometimes only a single figure being transposed between them showing clearly the final picture is an amalgam, a very well thought out amalgam. But the original figure that Hodges returns to is the figure with her back to the viewer with tattooed legs draped in tapa cloth. The reason he does so can be seen plainly in the image above, this figure is by far the most successful pose, the rest being bog standard figure poses of no originality which littered Neoclassic paintings from Claude to Turner. Hodges is right to fall in love with his figure as it is an inspired pose from a painter of no great talent, but a salient point ignored again and again by art critics, but known to every art dealer, is that every painter has his masterpieces, paintings where he is lifted beyond his talent and produces a painting, pose or image that could belong to a painter with twenty times the talent. Dealers who see ten times more paintings that curators or art critics know this not just because they see more paintings, have more experience and better eyes than these two generally over-rated professions, but because in an auction there can be ten to fifteen dealers present most posessing sharp asethetic skills and prepared to back their eyes with either their money or the money of their clients. It these situations auction estimates become irrelivant and it is not uncommon for paintingss to climb to three times their estimated value. So, we begin to understand why Hodges returned again and again to this figure, he recognised he had produced a little masterpiece of originality which was doubly important to him rather than a better painter because he knew he might not produce another like it.

Generally the English while not producing great painters can be relied upon to produce very good lanscape painters. It is a very English talent, and the English medium of genius is watercolour, of which Hodges was I believe a man of no great skill, however he did produce some watercolours of intense contrast that have interest, originality and no small amount of desirability, perhaps these were produced on Resolution's journeys to the deep South as they are generally monotone the effect which heavy snow condition produces by removing colour from the scene. They should be looked at and appreciated in the same light as a good black and white photograph. Hodges was the first artist of the Antarctic, if we ignore the presense of Johann Forster which we should not do for Forster was an amatuer painter of no small talent.

But in his studio pictures Hodges grasp of compostition is firm and sound as you would expect from someone produced out of Richard Wilson's studio. The view of the peaks is fine, with hazy atmospetrices not perhaps Polynesian. One interesting aspect of Hodges landscapes is the creeping into his pictures of his time as a scene painter for the stage, of which this view is typical if not quite so intrusively obvious as it is in some of his pictures. The dark hills frame and focus the veiwers attention on distant peaks but are flat like stage set wings which once you notice it or have it pointed out can become annoying. Though if we regard the group of coconut palms just off centre right in the same light their inclusion is a notable success. Tahiti is of course a High Island essentually a massive mountain projecting above the ocean and Pacific High Islands are spectacular and beautiful.

In the background a open thatched shed which Tahitians used to expose their dead can be seen, and several figures, these are scene fillers placed to aid the eye to travel into the picture, art critics have placed a significance on the burial platform which it may or may not have had, I personally think the sadness that pervades the picture comes from our knowledge of what was happening to this paradise and especially our knowledge of what was to decend apon it in the form of infectious diseases and those black crows of the Pacific; the missionaries, I do not think the picture requires visual cliches nor do I feel William Hodges is guilty of them.

Tahiti Revisited detail

Here we must pause and mount a retrospective defence of the reputation of William Hodges against the usual slurs of those who think they can see in such images heterosexual erotica. The nude in 18th century European Art belongs to the Classical Tradition, the Georgian love affair with Greek Art. I included Zoffany's; Self-portrait as David with the head of Goliath for just this reason, it appears to modern eyes as a piece of homo-erotica, yet this was not Zoffany's intent, nor the way his contempories would have viewed it. They lived very much in a Neo-Classical world, their education was Classical, their asethics were Classical and all their ideals were Classical. They viewed Zoffany's semi-naked portrait of himself, it in other words, in its context. The inability to view things in context is the hallmark of the sort of people with light weight minds who think history can be viewed more accurately when looking down the wrong end of the telescope. Revisionist History has its place, it has added much to our understanding of history when the subject of deep research, critical sense and a fine understanding of a subject, but it is also a little pond where childlike intellects like to play in the mud. Sigmund Freud created a set of tools and a language which favours vague statements that sound like intelligence, insight and profundity while being none of these things. It never occurred to these people to actually read of the sexual practices of Polynesians, where they might discover the reason Europeans thought of the Pacific as a paradise of sexual liberty was simply because it was. It never occurs to feminist writers to consider their views are just a new form of Christian and Abrahamic sexual repression wrapped in a new form of language. What Polynesians thought of Europeans is anyone's guess, I can only say that for a people who bathed three times a day the smell of European bodies unwashed for a year, whose breath smelt of halitosis, tobacco and rum must have been a daunting experience. As far as a sexual experience was concerned one can only hope that the Polynesians who were trained to give sexual pleasure from five years of age passed on some of their skills to the Europeans, else it must have been limited factor in sexual relations between the two peoples. Joseph Banks liked to boast at dinner parties of spending the night with the “Tahitian Queen” Podea, but usually failed to mention the fact that she found the experience deeply disappointing and made sure she did not repeat the experiment.

One curious question remains unanswered which regards the tattoos on the legs of the central figure. Accounts would suggest that this figure represents a female member of the Arioi Society; the secret religious order of the Society Islands who worshipped 'Oro, lived in sexual freedom as long as they were unmarried, murdered their children, engaged in sex acts to amuse the populace, were experts at recitation, dance and pantomime, were renown for their physical beauty and known as “black legs” for the tattoos on those limbs.

It is as I stated at the beginning near impossible to disentangle Europeans from the story of Polynesia, as it is impossible to disentangle the myth of Polynesia from European thinking. The effects of Abrahamic religion on European thought and culture has been wholly pernicious. Contact with Polynesia brought this home to those who experienced it and brought it home to those who read the journals of the original explorers. It became an ideal of Paradise far stronger, more sensual, more attractive and real than the anaemic paradise offered up by the Christian Churches. I have always thought that the vicious behaviour of the missionaries was in direct proportion to the threat Polynesia posed to their souls, The Christian religion's demon Satan never offered up anything half as seductive as the reality of 18th Century Tahiti, but Polynesia has always been an exercise in projection for Europeans and still is. In the 1970's we traded in the view of missionaries dressed in black for feminists dressed in denim dungerees, both were Puritan Zealots of the deepest dye. The Polynesians like all indigenous people never physically punished their children, yet in New Zealand the child most likely to die at the hands of their parent is a Polynesian. That is the lasting contribution of missionaries to Polynesia. Polynesia was populated by a people who were unacquainted with the concept of sin. The only restriction on sexual behaviour related to sexual relations between social classes.

William Hodges's Tahiti Revisited is no heterosexual fantasy, those who see it thus are engaging in the European's favourite sport of projection of their own insecurities, inadequacies and deeply rooted Old Testament sexual deviantcy. The true lesson of Polynesia is the pollution of our minds from birth by a disgusting religion that spawned a thousand sects and ruined the chance of true human happiness for a two hundred generations of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is an idea so pernicious that even when the religions themselves appear to be dying the evil lives on and is why the true message of Old Polynesia remains unlearnt twelve generations after what should have been our enlightenment. This is why the Christian churches marked Old Polynesia down for total destruction and made sure they so thoughly accomplished the task. However the idea of Old Polynesia and the rebuke Old Polynesia offers up to the inhumanity and evil that lies at the heart of Abrahamic religion lives on, which is why even today and probably forever more Tahiti Revisited will be attacked, by the to be charitable, unconsiously victims of the slavery of sexual repression, blind to William Blake's “mind forged manacles”of a monotheistic religion or Freudian psychology which is just the same thing in a mutated form. Both products of the warped peculiarities of the ancient and deeply ignorant Jewish mind.

But Tahiti Revisited is the ultimate portrait of the beginning of the death of Old Polynesia; its overwelming message, account, memoir and moral that fair weeps from the canvas is sadness and irretreavable loss. A million words read on the subject of Polynesia after viewing this painting, might educate, entertain, inform and stimulate the reader, but every true human feeling required from this subject can be found within this image.




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