Photographer's archive captures essence of Japan
By Virginia Wageman
Advertiser Art Critic
The photographer Francis Haar is one of Hawai'i's most distinguished artists. He died in 1997, having not completed a book of his photographs, long in the making, that he intended to document his life.
Most fortuitously, Tom Klobe, director of the University of Hawai'i Art Gallery, saw the manuscript before publication and determined that there should be an exhibition related to the photographs in the book.
That exhibition is at the Japanese Cultural Center, a perfect space for the work, and includes photographs made between 1940 and 1960, years that Haar and his wife, Irene, lived in Japan.
They had fled Europe at the outbreak of World War II. In Tokyo, Haar set up a portrait studio and embarked on a successful career, publishing three books in as many years. He also traveled around, shooting formal compositions of the Japanese countryside. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Haar and his family were interned in a mountain village, and he was not permitted to make photographs.
With the end of the war in 1945, Haar resumed work in Tokyo, at first as a photographer for the American occupation forces. By the 1950s, he had developed a profound interest in the people of Japan and was making stirring portraits of them.
The exhibition includes a great many of those portraits, from the famous (Emperor Hirohito's young brother, dressed in a western suit and looking every bit the serious scholar, and philosopher D.T. Suzuki), to anonymous female abalone divers and villagers at play and work.
Also shown at the Japanese Cultural Center are Haar's landscape and architectural compositions views of temples, of the Great Buddha in Kamakura, of Mount Fuji. These are gorgeous, but it is the tender glimpses into people's lives that establish him as a great photographer. Disregarding fame, he captures the essence of humanity in each individual and provides us with a body of work that may be savored slowly, again and again.
The book, "Francis Haar: A Lifetime of Images," includes Haar's graceful account of his life as well as photographs made in Europe and Hawai'i in addition to the works from Japan. There are also a great many family photos that document Haar's life and lend depth to the text.
The book, available at the cultural center, is a treasure, with 110 full-page photographs and a foreword by James Michener, who knew the Haars first in Japan and later in Honolulu.
Haar wrote that his "greatest joy" was "to communicate a valuable message." He surely would have been pleased by the book and exhibition, which together record a history important to preserve.
Work by another esteemed Hawai'i artist, Jean Williams, is on view in the Koa Gallery at Kapi'olani Community College. Now in her 80s, Williams is the dean of Hawai'i fiber artists.
The gallery is ablaze in the colors of Williams' handiwork, which are mostly large-scale hanging pieces, many of them sculptural. Warm colors of the tropics red, orange, yellow, magenta, purple are interwoven in intricate patterns and textures.
Beads, feathers and plant fibers are intermingled with traditional yarns and threads, an eclectic approach to her craft that has won Williams honors for nearly five decades.
An endearing piece is a montage of materials handmade felt, turkey and chicken bones, hundreds of feathers and beads from which emerges what appears to be a portrait of a sheep. Thus the source of the traditional fibers of Williams' trade is itself recreated out of all sorts of other materials along with the wool from which the felt would have been made.
Many of the weavings twist and turn, achieving a complex three-dimensionality, as in a wall hanging made of five separate but connected panels, each molded to achieve the form of a canoe.
Pushing her chosen medium to its limits, Williams has created an incredibly complicated, intelligent, sophisticated, and sometimes whimsical body of work.
One pile of woven fabrics on a table near the entrance allows the visitor to handle the pieces, adding tactile pleasure to what is already a visual delight.
Born in Honolulu, Williams studied weaving and pottery at the University of Hawai'i in the 1950s. Over the years, she has taught at UH and elsewhere and has influenced a generation or more of fiber artists.
Her work is included in the collection of the state Foundation on Culture and the Arts she is one of the earliest artists to be so honored and in the Honolulu Academy of Arts and New York's Museum of Contemporary Crafts.
Note: The Koa Gallery is now on summer hours, open only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays.
Virginia Wageman can be reached at VWageman@aol.com.