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San Diego Maritime Exhibit Takes Visitors On A Voyage to Paradise

Aired 6/9/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

When it all becomes too much and we're ready to escape the everyday world, one refuge that usually pops into mind is a South Seas island paradise. It's an image of blue lagoons, glistening beaches, friendly people and weather even nicer than San Diego's. But how did we originally get the notion that the islands of the Pacific were a gentle paradise, ready to welcome the weary of the Western world? A new exhibit at the San Diego Maritime Museum traces that history through the works of three famous men.

When it all becomes too much and we're ready to escape the everyday world, one refuge that usually pops into mind is a South Seas island paradise. It's an image of blue lagoons, glistening beaches, friendly people and weather even nicer than San Diego's. But how did we originally get the notion that the islands of the Pacific were a gentle Paradise, ready to welcome the weary of the Western world? A new exhibit at the San Diego Maritime Museum traces that history through the works of three famous men.

Guest: Kevin Sheehan is the assistant curator on Cook, Melville and Gauguin. He is the librarian at the Maritime Museum.

Cook, Melville and Gauguin

"Cook, Melville and Gauguin: Three Voyages to Paradise" is on view at the Maritime Museum until Jan 1.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

This is Midday Edition, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. When it all becomes too much, and we're ready to escape the everyday world, one refuge that usually pops into mind is a south seas island paradise. It's an image of blue lagoons, glistening beaches, friendly people, and weather even nicer than San Diego's. But how did we originally get the notion that the islands of the Pacific were a gentle paradise ready to welcome the weary of the western world? A new exhibit at the San Diego maritime museum traces that history through the works of three famous men. I'd like to welcome Kevin Sheehan, he's assistant curator of the exhibit Cooke, Melville, and Gauguin, three voyages to paradise. And thanks for coming in, Kevin.

SHEEHAN: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: If the first part of this exhibit, you attempt to transport visitors back into the past, to the voyages of discovery in the south Pacific. How do you do this?

SHEEHAN: Well, I think I need to explain to our listeners, Maureen, how we are actually situated on the embarcadero. We're just in front of the county building, so if you see the star of India, that's where we are, we're actually composed of ships. In one of those ships, featured in a movie called master and commander a few years ago, and also pirates of the Caribbean, I've constructed an exhibit that acts as a back drop to the art exhibit on the Berkeley. What we do is we take people below decks on surprise, and lead them through five hundred years of history, that traces the origins of this idea that somewhere in the Pacific there's an undiscovered paradise waiting to be found, waiting to be enjoyed by Europeans. And to do that, what we do, is we're right back to the year 1492, the story of Columbus. Everyone knows that Columbus supposedly discovered America. What is less well known is that one of his projects, one of his obsessions was also the discovery of the earthly paradise. He got this from the maps that he studied, from the people he'd read, from the books in antiquity that he'd amassed in his library. And somewhere, he believed, just over the horizon, just over that beautiful mountain or just in that valley next to it, there lay the garden of Eden. Every time he saw a parrot, every time he saw a lush piece of greenery, he looked back into his books and thought, well, this must be a sign that we're very close.

CAVANAUGH: I'm close, I'm close. Now, I think many people are familiar with the artist Paul Gaugin's trips to the south seas and the art he produced there. But could you remind us perhaps give us a few hints about how Cooke and Melville fit into the whole image that we have of the south seas?

SHEEHAN: Sure. James Cooke, the noted British explorer, navigator, who have been present in the south seas in the 17 '70s is really responsible for opening up the ocean to the European mind set of the time. Previous to that, Europeans had attempted to enter the Pacific with some degree of success, but always their voyages were often accounts of disaster of the ravages of scurvy, of not being able to find their way to the nearest island for sustenance and hospitality and so on. Now, with Cooke all that changes because armed with the latest scientific instruments and also with his prodigious knowledge of navigation, he was actually able to find his way around the Pacific. He was the first successful navigator to do that with any degree of certitude. Melville, another sailor, little known perhaps. But we went away to sea at a fairly young age, joined up with a whaler known as the Tushnet, and travelled to the south sea, and while he was there, during the middle of the nineteenth century, he got tired whaling, and incidentally your readers will probably -- our listeners will probably know him from the most famous of his works, Moby-Dick, which actually chronicles something of his experiences. And he jumped ship in the Marquesas, and finds a hidden valley there, inhabited by the Typee, which is also the title of one of his works. These people are reporter to be cannibals, but he and his companion in fact find them to be very hospitable. So these are the origins if you like of our knowledge of the Pacific in the nineteenth century, and the late eighteenth century.

CAVANAUGH: And how do these -- do we know how these tales, these adventures of captain Cooke and the novels of Herman Melville, how they affected the Europeans and the Americans at that time in what they thought of as the -- about the islands of the Pacific?

SHEEHAN: Well, I think one of the ways in which Europeans, especially elites, became exposed to the Pacific was through the world of art.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

SHEEHAN: And the artifacts certainly that Cooke and his companions, Joseph banks, Daniel solander, brought back to Europe. But also the work of the artists who were on board the various expeditions. People like Webber, Hodges and so on, Parkinson, and we have originals of their work on display at the maritime museum. Sole you're gonna go there, you're gonna see some of the magnificent landscapes that Hodges painted in Tahiti, and you're gonna see some of the works from the Floregium, and was eventually published out of banks's collection. Stuff that he had collected during his sojourn in the south sea. And then with Melville, a lite bit more difficult to perhaps see the artistic connection, but it's certainly there. Because the dramatic tales of encounter with the Typee and also whaling captured the imagination of artists, obviously of the nineteenth century. Whaling was very much an American industry in the Pacific in those mid-century decades. So it is that it's translated into paintings, kind of between the whalers and the epic struggle with sperm whales. And also a beautiful piece of scrimshaw that was once in the possession of Herman Melville himself, and you can see his initials H. M., and we have that on display there.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's fascinating. I think when most westerners think of south sea island art, the name Paul Gauguin looms very large. So his tale, his stories, and also his works are exhibited in this exhibit. What will visitors see?

SHEEHAN: You're gonna see a really impressive cross connection of Gauguin's works. Now, for me it was something of a learning experience. I've always associated the name of Gauguin with these colorful images of women on south sea islands, right? What I discovered was that he was much more of a sculptor than I'd realized. So you're gonna see first his classic impressionist paintings. Not terribly well known. These are not works you would see if you were doing a word search for Gauguin on the Internet, for example. But they never the less show the influence of impressionist painting on his style. But also you're gone see his sculpture, the wooden sculpture that he produced, also bronzes that were cast from his originals, and also ceramics. He loved that as a medium for expressing something of his character. And what I think is revealed in Gauguin's portion of this exhibit is the thorough influence that he felt from his own ancestry, he believed he had Inca blood, whether or not that's true -- he was somewhat given to exaggeration. But certainly the experiences that he had in the south sea, from observing indigenous culture, indigenous stories there, and also indigenous art forms.

CAVANAUGH: Since Gauguin is not known as a sculptor, is there any dispute about any of these works on display?

SHEEHAN: There is one in particular. Well, I guess there are two ways of looking at this. First of all there are some bronzes. These are according to the norms staked by the Getty, these are well attributed to Gauguin as works that come from his school of thought or his artistic output. But secondly, there is one quite controversial piece, controversial in terms of its subject matter, and also there is much discussion on whether or not it's an original Gauguin, this is the Nave Nave statue. And the statue was discovered by a collector in Tahiti a number of years ago. If it is a real Gauguin, it is probably one of the great Gauguin finds of the past century. And one of the reasons why we include a broad cross section of Gauguin's works, his original works and also the bronzes in this exhibit is to show the likely provenance or the likely authorship of this particular statue. And I leave our listeners to go and visit the museum, and also experience it for themselves and to kind of come up with their own decision on it.

CAVANAUGH: And you describe this as an erotic sculpture.

SHEEHAN: It is indeed, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: How erotic is it?

SHEEHAN: Well, I guess you could say it's a depiction of sexual intercourse. It's well and truly in line with some of the pre-Columbian art from the Inca empire, for example. And this is one of the hints that Gauguin had been influenced by that as a source of inspiration for producing this piece of sculpture.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Kevin Sheehan, he is assistant curator at the San Diego maritime museum, Cooke, Melville, and Gauguin, three voyages to paradise. Do we know what the native peoples of these islands thought about James Cooke or Herman Melville or Paul Gauguin, do we know how perhaps these individuals influenced them?

SHEEHAN: That's a really good question, Maureen. The influence of western arrival in -- or European arrival in the Pacific was profound on so many different levels. It's a story of in some senses happy encounter, but also tragedy too, because with westerners came outside diseases, colonialism, exploitation, and we do tell that story in the historical portion of the exhibit. So your listeners or our visitors are left under no doubt that this was a very profound impact upon indigenous culture. At times, of course, it was somewhat -- almost comical, I could say. Probably the first recorded European visit to the island of Tahiti was in 1767 with the British warship HMS Dolphin. And the captain of the dolphin was very worried at one point because his ship was literally falling apart beneath him because the sailors were taking the nails out of the ship and trading them for sexual favors with the indigenous women. He had to actually issue an order to stop that. So there is sort of a lighthearted, if you like, side to this encounter too. But at the same time, when you look at the statistics, Cooke estimated a number of some hundreds of thousands of people living on Tahiti during his visit. Within a few decades, that had shrunk down to less than 10 thousand.

CAVANAUGH: Because of disease?

SHEEHAN: Probably because of disease, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. You know, despite the image of paradise that we still have and we get from Cooke and Melville and Gauguin, all three of these men encountered great difficulties in their south seas journeys didn't they? I mean, James Cooke was killed.

SHEEHAN: He was indeed. He was killed on Hawaii. Yet in that death becomes something of course of the legend of Cooke. He's elevated through the art work you'll again see in the exhibit as sort of like a patron saint or a martyr of British navigational expansion and exploration. So he's often depicted as the person holding back the Marines from shooting the indigenous people who are about to kill him. So there's something of a paradox we'll see in Cooke's character because although he opens up the Pacific and describes it in glowing terms, he's also responsibility I guess you could say for the demise of the culture he describes.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes. And that's part of what you say all thee of these men encounter. They went to paradise, places we think of paradise, and yet they witnessed that paradise shrinking in one way or another.

SHEEHAN: Melville is very blunt about his opinion of the encroachment of westerners like himself, the whalers who exploit the local population, missionaries who come in and change customs and cultures and that sort of thing, and also colonial officials. And Gauguin is thoroughly critical. Even though he is very much a part of that whole system, he goes to the south sea in a sense to escape from French culture, still finds himself immersed in French culture there in Tahiti. And he is interested in painting not only for a personal liberation but also to make money out of the whole project, which he never seems to really quite do.

CAVANAUGH: And yet that image of paradise persists even to this day. Would you say that's because we need a paradise?

SHEEHAN: I think so. You know, it's sort of a dream that we all have to get away from work, from the pressures of our frenetic lifestyle, and so on. And there's always this idea that perhaps somewhere out there there's a paradise beyond for me. And we see it oftentimes in popular culture. One of the small parts of the exhibit that we do draw people's attention to on the surprise is a TV show called adventures in paradise, that screened in the late 1950s, early 1960s. And it was about a Korean war veteran who goes off, and sails on the Tiki 3, he does good in the Pacific, and it always seems to come out right for him, and he has a lot of adventures on the way. But I also conclude that portion of the exhibit with another image. That of a volleyball sitting on a beach and on the volleyball is a face. And every time someone comes down into the exhibit, oftentimes I hear the word Wilson! So this is Tom Hanks, of course, and his companion on that terrible island.

CAVANAUGH: On that terrible island, yes, Joe versus the volcano.

SHEEHAN: The Pacific has the capacity to both entrance us, but also to confound us and to confuse us. And to ultimately to tragedy as well.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to let everyone know that Cooke, Melville and Gauguin, three voyages to paradise is on view at the maritime museum all the way until January first. And I've been speaking with Kevin Sheehan, assistant curator on that exhibit, he is the librarian at the San Diego mire time museum. Thank you so much.

SHEEHAN: Thanks for having me, Maureen.

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