Oahu travelers looking to spend at least one afternoon away from the bustling crowds and sun-soaked sand of Waikiki’s world-famous beaches should consider a visit to the Honolulu Museum of Art and a look through the exhibit “Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawaii Pictures.”
On display through Jan. 12, the show is a glimpse of the Hawaiian Islands through the eyes of two American masters during the peak of their careers, offering visitors a nice contrast to the more commercial art often found in galleries across the state.
“Both artists sought to unmask what lay beyond the beaches of Waikiki,” said Theresa Papanikolas, the Honolulu Museum of Art’s curator of European and American art.
The exhibition features 12 paintings connected with O’Keeffe’s 1939 trip to Hawaii on a commission to create print advertising illustrations for the Hawaiian Pineapple Co., better known today as Dole.
An icon today thanks to her work in the American Southwest, O’Keeffe traveled to Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii during her two-month visit, creating pieces inspired by the destinations’ lava rock coastlines, exotic flowers, lush mountain valleys and traditional Hawaiian tools.
According to Papanikolas, O’Keeffe was looking to transcend the well-known Waikiki tourism images of the era and “pictured Hawaii in terms of her own authentic and deeply personal response to its natural beauty.”
During my recent look at the exhibition, it was a real treat to examine the vibrant colors of O’Keeffe’s Hawaii work up close, and the collection of 56 black-and-white Ansel Adams photographs was loaded with surprising highlights, including some gripping portraits.
“The work that Adams did in the Islands reflected [his] aim to exploit the capacity of modern photography to reveal the essence of a given subject,” Papanikolas explained.
Examining both Hawaii’s extraordinary natural beauty and its “urban reality,” Papanikolas said Adams hoped to capture “what he perceived to be a profound connection between the land and its inhabitants.”
Celebrated for his images of the American West, Adams also traveled to Hawaii on commission, first visiting in 1948 to take National Park photographs for the Department of the Interior before returning in 1957 for a commemorative publication requested by a Hawaii bank.
For those familiar with Adams’ work, the exhibition features some gorgeous images of Aloha State scenery possessing a similar feel to his more celebrated shots of Yosemite. But photographs capturing Hawaii people or glimpses of life in the Islands offer an unexpected authenticity.
Located in downtown Honolulu, 10 minutes or so by car from most hotels in Waikiki, the Honolulu Museum of Art is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.