Denby Fawcett: Historic Mural Now Belongs to the People of Hawaii


It’s hard to imagine that a huge fresco masterpiece by world renowned artist Jean Charlot that stood on the walls of the Waikiki branch of the First Hawaiian Bank for decades could have ended up in a trash can .

Jean Charlot was the French-born American genius who painted alongside Diego Rivera in Mexico in the Renaissance Mexican Muralism of the early 1920s. Charlot partied with Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the muralist Jose Clemente Orozco and the American photographer Edward Weston.

When French retail company LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton bought the property the bank was leasing for its Waikiki branch on Kalakaua Avenue in 2019, the luxury goods company made it clear that it was redeveloping the space. and was not interested in preserving the enormous fresco panels of Charlot.

And the bank says the new office she will move into next year in the same building she is currently in is not large enough to accommodate the mural.

Still, the bank has found a way to breathe new life into the mural. In collaboration with the Jean Charlot Foundation and the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts, she signed a formal agreement this month to donate the mural to the State of Hawaii.

“For over 69 years, First Hawaiian Bank has been a proud steward and by donating the mural to the SFCA we know that this beautiful, historic work of art will continue to be shared and appreciated by the public for many generations to come. “said First Hawaiian Bank. in an email.

The state plans early next year to begin the monumental task of extracting the three fresco panels, piece by piece, from the brackets and steel rods that secure them to the walls of the bank and delicately transporting them. to a warehouse in new steel frames to avoid cracking their plaster.

Jean Charlot's fresco mounted near the second floor of the First Hawaiian Bank, Waikiki branch.
Jean Charlot’s fresco mounted near the second floor of the First Hawaiian Bank, Waikiki branch. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

The signs will be stored until the foundation finds the correct state building in which to display them.

“It will be a major challenge and a major expense but it is also a major work of art,” said Jonathan Johnson, executive director of the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts.

“We have the capacity,” he said. “There are incredibly large spaces in state buildings such as airports and on college campuses with enough space to display the mural. We just have to find the right place.

The mural is 9 feet high and 98 feet wide. It is placed approximately 10 feet above the first floor of the bank.

Johnson said the contractors’ bids to move the mural were around $ 350,000.

And that’s just the beginning. Coming up, there will be additional expense to reassemble the Charlot mural and transport it again to install it in a new home.

The money to pay for the project will come from the state’s Art in Public Places program, which requires that 1% of all funds approved for the construction of public buildings be spent on art. The fund aims to acquire, exhibit, transport, maintain and repair works of art and display them to the public.

The eventual relocation of the Charlot mural will be a revelation to many Hawaiians who had no idea the masterpiece was quietly housed in a branch of the bank in Waikiki, said architect John Williams .

Charlot worked in 1966 on the First Hawaiian Bank mural commissioned for its Waikiki branch at the corner of Kalakaua Avenue and Lewers Street. Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii Library

Allison Wong, president of the Charlot Foundation, said the goal is for the mural to end up in a very public space.

“The fresco is in a magnificent condition, which is not always the case with the frescoes. It’s very important work that reflects Charlot’s point of view on Hawaii at the time, ”she said.

It is a testament to First Hawaiian Bank’s will and support for great art that the Charlot mural has survived for so long.

The bank – then known as Bishop National Bank – initially commissioned Charlot to create the fresco panels in 1951 for its new Waikiki branch at 270 Lewers Street.

Charlot was then already an artist of national renown. He came to Hawaii in 1949 on a two-month contract to create a mural in Bachman Hall at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He loved this place so much that when he got a contract to teach the arts at UH, he and his family decided to make Honolulu their permanent home.

The mural he originally created for the bank was in two panels and titled “Early Cultural Exchanges between Hawaii and the Outside World”.

The panel images described the dramatic changes that took place in Hawaii between 1780 and 1830 with the arrival of white men and women and their introduction to Hawaiians of innovations such as the spinning wheel, printing press, writing, metal tools and -style commerce. One scene shows Hawaiians exchanging a cape and feathered helmet with European explorers for metal tools.

When Charlot deepened his understanding of Hawaii, he added a third panel in 1966 to the mural showing Kamehameha I and Kaahumanu standing on a Hawaiian sailing canoe, returning from an encounter at sea with European travelers. The Hawaiian King and his favorite wife had interacted with the strangers not as needy natives seeking instruction on how to live, but as proud equals.

Since arriving in Honolulu, Charlot had made it his passion to better understand Hawaii, to speak the Hawaiian language fluently and to immerse himself in the history and culture of the island.

He wanted to make it clear in the third panel that Hawaiians had their own powerful culture and were dynamically involved in the historical drama unfolding around them – not passive primitives.

“This is something to be emphasized,” said his son and biographer, John Charlot.

Jean Charlot, second from left, poses in front of a fresco by Diego Rivera with other artists including Frida Kahlo and Rivera in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii Library

John Charlot pointed out that in the bank mural, his father emphasized the equally important role women had in both ancient Hawaii and in its transformation into a modern island society.

“Dad had a real appreciation for the contribution of women to history. Most of his works show around 50% male and 50% female, ”he said.

When the bank decided to move from the Lewers Street location to its current branch at the corner of Kalakaua and Lewers avenues, the technology at the time was not advanced enough to allow it to clear the Charlot mural. walls and move it.

Instead, each panel was cut into easel-sized pieces, each signed by Charlot, and auctioned off to benefit the Honolulu Community Theater, now known as the Diamond Head Theater.

Charlot loved the theater in which he performed both as an actor and watched the plays he had written performed on stage.

Today, you might come across cut-out artwork from the auction all over Honolulu at places like the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Liljestrand House, the Maryknoll School, and the University of Hawaii.

First Hawaiian Bank then commissioned Charlot in 1966 to recreate the same mural for its new location to which it added the previously mentioned third panel.

The fate of the Charlot mural was called into question again in 2006 when the bank decided to downsize the Waikiki branch, reducing its floor space by almost half.

Williams said the bank managed to save the mural during the downsizing by cutting one of the panels of the mural into two pieces and lowering the pieces to separate them while a new partition was built on which hang up the pieces next to the other panels that had been kept in their original places.

Johnson of the Foundation on Culture and the Arts is not discouraged by the task of moving the large pieces. He said he used to carry delicate frescoes when the State Foundation acquired Charlot’s mural “The Chief’s Canoe”, which was commissioned by Henry J. Kaiser in 1956.

Jean Charlot Fresco at the First Hawaiian Bank Waikiki Branch featuring a woman missionary.
A detail of a woman missionary is part of Jean Charlot’s fresco at the Waikiki branch of the First Hawaiian Bank. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

The mural was on display at the Catamaran Cafe at the Kaiser’s Hawaiian Village Hotel, which was renamed the Hilton Hawaiian Village, but was removed when the cafe was renovated in 1986. It was later acquired by the State Cultural Foundation and the arts to be resettled. in 1994 in the new Hawaii Convention Center.

This time it will be more difficult, as the bank’s artwork is much larger and must first be taken out of the building before it can be moved.

Wong said the bank door was not big enough to get her out.

“It will be a challenge, but that’s what’s exciting,” Johnson said.

Tramp’s son John said he was holding his breath thinking about the complexity of the move, but he is extremely grateful.

“I’m glad he’s saved. Works of art are such fragile things. In the past, so much great art has been destroyed. It really took a lot of hard working people to make this rescue happen, ”he said.


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