Concluding our conversation about Jean Charlot, the scope of his collection, and the deep relationships he forged, Curator Bronwen Solyom stated “I cannot think of a thing the man wasn’t interested in.” Distinguished as one of Hawaii’s great artists, his many talents and interests establish Charlot as a true renaissance man.
The “Founding Collection” of books, archives, original artwork, photographs, audio-visual materials, and memorabilia was donated to the University of Hawaii’s Hamilton Library in 1981 by Jean Charlot’s widow, Zohmah. Additions to the collection were made by the artist’s family and friends. This is Hawaii’s most comprehensive public collection of artist papers. It serves faculty, staff, students, researchers and receives exhibition loan and reference inquiries spanning the globe.
The collection covers Charlot’s (1898-1979) career from France, to Mexico, to the United States and the Pacific. Charlot was prolific, creating paintings, frescoes, drawings, prints, ceramics and even sculpture. He was a scholar, critic, book illustrator, cartoonist, poet and collector. There are so many facets to his life that Bron says she can never predict how students will make use of the collections.
One of the most interesting aspects is the range of stories the collection tells in terms of his relationships with other artists. Correspondence between Charlot and noted photographer Edward Weston inspired a book. A postcard from Paris is signed by Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Betty and Gustav Ecke. In Mexico, one of Charlot’s first jobs was to help Diego Rivera on a mural. Photographer Tina Modotti executed an early portrait in Mexico and Francis Haar’s photo of Charlot (pictured at top) captures him late in life.
As a child in Paris, Charlot was surrounded by family collections. An aspiring young artist, he was taken to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (now the Musée de l’Homme) by family friend and photographer Désiré Charnay. Shortly after he began exhibiting (first exhibition pictured above), in 1918 he was sent to the front to join the French artillery and eventually became a junior officer. Following the war, Charlot tried his hand as a commercial artist, designing cosmetic packaging for Elizabeth Arden in the early 20’s. With little opportunity to make it as an artist, Charlot took his widowed mother to Mexico to live with relatives in 1921. Some of the earliest and most interesting memorabilia in the collection comes from Charlot’s family collection and his early years in France.
In Mexico City Charlot was part of the Mexican Mural Movement. He fully immersed himself in the culture, even learning the language of the Mayan people. Besides murals, Charlot is recognized for working closely with archaeologists at Chichen Itza where he documented the fugitive colors on painted walls and reliefs as they were excavated. He collected the work of then under-appreciated artist José Guadalupe Posada. He was friends with Mexican artists active in the early 20th century including José Clemente Orozco, Emilio Amero, Leopoldo Mendez, Xavier Guerrero, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Bron explains “this fresco, inspired by Paolo Uccello’s great battle masterpiece, established Charlot as a master of design and technique at the dawn of the so-called Mexican mural renaissance. The historical subject matter depicts atrocities committed by Spanish invaders as they surrounded a temple and killed or imprisoned the Aztecs celebrating a festival. It reflects Charlot’s pro-Indian sympathies and the lingering horrors from world war one. The powerful lines of the lances following the angular shape of the wall are painted in vermilion encaustic, an added medium that Charlot did not use again.”
He continued on to a career in the United States, working in New York and Colorado, before settling in Hawaii in 1949 where he taught at the University of Hawaii for 17 years. His first project was a mural for the University’s new administrative building (Bachman Hall). This mural titled “Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawaii” as well as murals at the Hawaii Convention Center (installed from a prior location), Leeward Community College Theatre, and the United Public Workers building (with Isami Enemoto) on School Street, feature prominently in our public spaces.
He went with Hawaii artist Juliette May Fraser to Bishop Museum to study Hawaiian art and artifacts in preparation for his first mural in Hawaii. As in Mexico, he immersed himself in the local culture, taking Samuel Elbert’s first Hawaiian language class and continuing to repeat the courses once he reached the highest level of instruction.
Unexpected finds include a variety of memorabilia: rare 19th century Mexican folk art miniatures passed down through his family; a Margarete Steiff bear hand puppet (puppets became a recurring theme in his work); and his WWI artillery uniform. Artist archives can have many points of interest for researchers and this collection is a treasure trove for curators, historians, art collectors, and researchers on a multitude of topics.
The Jean Charlot Collection is located on the 5th floor of Hamilton Library at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The reading room is open Tuesdays from 9:00 am to noon and Thursdays from 1:00 to 5:00 pm, or other times by appointment.
All photographs courtesy of the Jean Charlot Collection with captions by Bronwen Solyom, unless otherwise noted.
Information was drawn primarily from a conversation with collections curator, Bronwen Solyom, with supporting information from the Jean Charlot Collection website and brochure. Many thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge and stories about the collection!
— Malia Van Heukelem