Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, October 7, 2001

Portrayals of Hawaiian women, transmutations of nature

By Virginia Wageman
Advertiser Art Critic

"The Hawaiians are really to me the most beautiful people in the world," artist Madge Tennent (1889-1972) once said. "No doubt about it," she continued, "the Hawaiian is a piece of living sculpture."

Paintings, drawings and prints by Tennent from the collection of the late Donald Angus — an art dealer and a devoted friend of Tennent — will be exhibited by Cedar Street Galleries through Oct. 26, after which the gallery will continue to offer Tennent works for sale.

The works at Cedar Street have not been seen for decades. They date from throughout the years that Tennent was active in Hawai'i, the 1930s through the 1960s.

Tennent's portrayals of Hawaiian women were once reviled as caricatures, even by the Hawaiians she so loved. As artist and critic Jean Charlot wrote in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on July 12, 1967, "she alienated genteel friends by the sheer boldness of her distortions."

Eventually, people came to understand her art, and by the time of her death in 1972, she was celebrated by all peoples of the state. The state Senate adopted a resolution that read in part: "Madge Tennent was able to capture and honestly express ... the subtle charm and quiet grace and dignity of the Hawaiian people. ... [T]his body solemnly notes the passing of a great artist and person."

With grand swirls of oil or a few graceful lines of pencil, charcoal or ink, Tennent portrayed Hawaiian women as solidly fleshed and majestic, capturing in rhythmic forms the very essence of their being.

Tennent also painted people of other ethnic origins, including Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and haoles. Her "Young Chinese Girl," an early work from 1928 (and somewhat in need of restoration), demonstrates well her method of working with impasto, applying thick layers of paint to achieve a graceful, perfectly balanced composition.

Also at Cedar Street is a magnificent undated oil of a hula dancer at rest, in which the swirling patterns of thickly applied paint lend a sense of vitality and movement even in a figure not moving.

Though there are just four oils in the exhibition, there are at least 100 drawings, watercolors, pastels and prints, providing a broad overview of Tennent's style and subjects.

The story of Tennent's life is a fascinating one, including childhood studies with Bougereau in Paris, teaching art in South Africa, years spent in New Zealand and Samoa, and finally a move to Hawai'i, where she lived from 1923 until her death. More about this artist can be learned from a visit to the Tennent Art Foundation Gallery at 203 Prospect St. (531-1987), a small facility housed in Tennent's Vladimir-Ossipoff-designed home.

Tennent's husband, Hugh Cowper Tennent, once said, "No one else has ever or will ever paint like her!"

Indeed, that is true. But in her unromanticized, straightforward portraits of Hawaiian women, Chris Campbell today expresses the spirit that so engaged Tennent.

Campbell shares Tennent's enormous admiration for Hawaiian women and depicts them as strong, serene and proud. Campbell's women are as much "living sculptures" as those by Tennent, albeit in a different, more restrained style.

Campbell moved to Hawai'i about five years ago and has since picked up two awards at the annual Artists of Hawai'i show at the Academy of Arts. Like Tennent, she paints the residents of her new home with respect and dignity. It is fitting that the Cedar Street Galleries has paired a showing of her work with that of Madge Tennent.

'Organic Transformations'

"Organic Transformations," the title of a show of work by Alan and Birgitta Leitner at Koa Gallery, alludes to the transformation of natural forms in the work of both artists.

Alan Leitner's art is engaged with change, with transmutation in the alchemical sense. Rocks become flowers and lead becomes gold. His richly textured canvases are covered with layer after layer of paint, with symbols, images and letters scratched out or layered on.

Words like "I am" or "home" emerge, but the individual letters also stand on their own as graphic symbols with multilayered meanings. One senses a dark angst that portends the events of Sept. 11, yet there is also a strong, almost spiritual glow emerging from the darkness of each of the canvases, one that arises from an undercoating of orange or rust (the gold of the alchemists).

Leitner's quest for change, for transcendence, may be seen as a search for light (often equated with truth or spiritual awareness), implied by the play on his name with the word "light," inscribed like an artist's signature at the bottom of one of the canvases.

These complex paintings — with incredibly varied and rich surfaces — have been beautifully installed and lighted in the Koa Gallery by curator David Behlke, who over the course of several years has transformed the gallery's space.

Also on view are paintings on paper by Birgitta Leitner, whose palette of black, gray, yellow and orange is similar to that of her husband. Her imagery is, however, more limited (though not in a negative sense) and direct.

Whereas Alan Leitner combines seed pod and floral imagery with a mélange of other images, Birgitta Leitner focuses simply on palm trees and seed pods, creating works that distill the complexity of her husband's images into easily assimilated, quite elegant compositions.

Reach Virginia Wageman at VWageman@aol.com.