Denby Fawcett: A Historic Mural Now Belongs To The People Of Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

It is difficult to imagine a huge fresco masterpiece by world-famous artist Jean Charlot that was on the walls of First Hawaiian Bank’s Waikiki branch for decades might have ended up in a trash bin.

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

When the French retail company LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton purchased the property the bank was leasing for its Waikiki branch on Kalakaua Avenue in 2019, the luxury goods company made clear it was remodeling the space and not interested in retaining the massive Charlot fresco panels.

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

Still, the bank has found a way to give the mural a new lease on life. Working with the Jean Charlot Foundation and the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, it signed a formal agreement this month to donate the mural as a gift to the state of Hawaii.

”For over 69 years, First Hawaiian Bank has been a proud steward and by gifting the mural to the SFCA we know this beautiful historic art piece will continue to be shared and enjoyed by the public for many generations to come,” First Hawaiian Bank said in an email.

The state expects early next year to begin the monumental task of extracting the three fresco panels, piece by piece, from brackets and steel rods affixing them to the bank’s walls and gently transport 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 panels will be stored until the foundation finds the right state building in which to display them.

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

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

The mural measures 9-feet-tall and 98-feet-wide. It is placed about 10 feet above the bank’s first floor.

Johnson said contractors’ bids to move the mural are coming in at about $350,000.

And that is just the beginning. Ahead will be additional expenditures to reassemble the Charlot mural and to 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 1% of all approved appropriations for construction of state buildings to go to art. The fund is to acquire, display, transport, maintain and repair artworks and to put them on public display.

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

Charlot works in 1966 on the mural First Hawaiian Bank 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 Foudation, said the goal is for the mural to end up in a very public space.

“The mural is in wonderful condition, which is not always the case with frescoes. It is very important work that reflects Charlot’s view of 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 — originally commissioned Charlot to create the fresco panels in 1951 for its new Waikiki Branch at 270 Lewers St.

Charlot by then already was a nationally known artist. He came to Hawaii in 1949 on a two-month contract to create a fresco mural in Bachman Hall at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He liked it here so much that when he got a contract teaching art at UH, he and his family decided to make Honolulu their permanent home.

The mural he initially created for the bank was in two panels and titled “Early Cultural Exchanges Between Hawaii and the Outer World.”

Images in the panels 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, the printing press, the written word, metal tools and Western-style commerce. One scene shows Hawaiians exchanging a feather cape and feathered helmet with European explorers for metal tools.

When Charlot’s understanding of Hawaii deepened, he added a third panel in 1966 to the mural showing Kamehameha I and Kaahumanu standing on a Hawaiian sailing canoe, returning from a meeting at sea with European voyagers. The Hawaiian king and his favorite wife had interacted with the foreigners not as needy natives seeking instructions on how to live, but as proud coequals.

Since his arrival in Honolulu, Charlot had made it his passion to better understand Hawaii, becoming fluent in the Hawaiian language and immersing himself in the islands’ history and culture.

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

“That is something that must be underscored,” said his son and biographer, John Charlot.

Jean Charlot, second from left, poses in front of a Diego Rivera mural 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 mural in the bank his father emphasized the equally important role women had both in ancient Hawaii and in its transformation to a modern island society.

“Papa had a real appreciation for women’s contribution to history. Most of his works show about 50% men and 50% women,” he said.

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

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

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

Today, you might come across the cut-up art pieces from the auction all over Honolulu in places like the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Liljestrand House, 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 he added the third panel mentioned previously.

The fate of the Charlot mural was challenged again in 2006 when the bank decided to downsize the Waikiki branch, cutting its floor size almost in half.

Williams said the bank successfully saved the mural during the downsizing by cutting one of the mural’s panels in two pieces and lowering the pieces to move them out of the way while a new partition was constructed on which to rehang the pieces beside the other panels that had been kept in their original places.

Johnson of the Foundation on Culture and the Arts is undaunted by the task ahead of moving the large pieces. He said he has had practice transporting delicate frescoes when the state foundation acquired Charlot’s mural “The Chief’s Canoe,” which had been commissioned by Henry J. Kaiser in 1956.

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

The mural was displayed in the Catamaran Cafe in Kaiser’s Hawaiian Village Hotel, which has been renamed the Hilton Hawaiian Village, but was removed when the cafe was remodeled in 1986. It was then acquired by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts to be reinstalled in 1994 in the newly built Hawaii Convention Center.

This time will be more difficult, though, because the bank’s artwork is much bigger and has to be extricated from the building first before it can be moved.

Wong said the bank’s door is not big enough to get it out.

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

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

“I am delighted it is being saved. Artworks are such fragile things. In the past, so much great art has been destroyed. It really took a lot of people working hard to make this rescue happen,” he said.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

In 1975,I worked at Kilohana Rec. center, Ohia, Molokai. On the eastern, interior wall of our building, I watched a young male artist from out of state paint, from an old photo, a wall mural depicting Pukoo fishpond and the mountains framing Mapulehu valley. In this district is located our Iliiliopai Heau, second or third largest in the state. What a breath taking sight it was and is still albeit in a more weathered/abused condition due to gatherings over the years, read: taped party decor and general use. I have spoken  to former Parks&Recreation directors here as well as Hawaiian civic leaders and three of the last Principles at Kilohana school suggesting that our mural there NEEDS conserving. OHA could assist here at any time. Towards the east end of Molokai, we have no historical waypoints or any indication of any noteworthy Hawaiiana preservation locales short of scenic homesteads. We have resident artists, there is a definite need for conserving this mural but evidently no urgency or funding/grants to rescue the mural. It wouldn’t take much to preserve. My fear is to one day stop into the Rec. center to see the wall repainted/OVERLOOKED just as many of our resources are.  

pohaku · 2 years ago

 That mural is a great work of art; I was familiar with it and on a Waikiki staycation during the Pandemic I went and visited it.  It;s good to hear that it will be rescued, although some of its' cultural references might be considered a bit dated  as to its depiction of western life.  It does make me wonder what the plans are for the several frescoes/murals that are on the UH Manoa campus and  depict Hawaiian culture that I think are in Kuykendall or Sakamki  Halls and I believe Kuykendall is  slated for demolition .  

rbghawaii · 2 years ago

Mahalo Denby, good news for all art and Charlot fans.There are two interesting film documentaries of the original installation in 1951 by George Tahara (Cine-Pic). And then the replacement/restoration in 1966 by Joseph Martin. Hope it ends up in a very public space like UH West Oahu Campus, so many more can enjoy this amazing fresco.

boots · 2 years ago

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