INTERVIEW WITH JEAN CHARLOT 1971
Well, itÕs, of course, the things I am doing on a monumental scale, because when I say I am a mural painter, it means that I am always interested in tying up whatever I do with an architecture, and it can be a painting. Of course, what IÕve done mostly here is a fresco. But IÕm just in the middle of waiting for the final pictures on the Way of the Cross that I did for the Ossipoff church in Mililani, and Francis went there and took photographs before the thing was taken out. ItÕs rather a difficult business because itÕs like making a cast of a sculpture that doesnÕt exist. That is, you have to make a negative, a space sculpture that becomes a solid volume sculpture. When the cement is poured into the building, at the same time that the wall comes out, the bas-reliefs come out.
The Way of the Cross is, of course, fourteen stations. It runs on both sides of the church. I wasnÕt terribly happy with the blueprint, which was shown to me when it was too late to modify it, because those things are about twenty by sixteen rectangles, eleven feet high, and the poor old ladies who will do the Way of the Cross––unless they have very good eyesight, of course––will have a hard time seeing it. So I made very large Roman numerals at the bottom, and I hope they can read that. But that was a nice problem because of theÉI wouldnÕt say error, but the usualness of giving me such a small space so high up. That is, I had to make things that would be good in far-off vision. Of course, we have that in all our murals. In the bank, I think, it begins at eleven feet high. But there I was so restricted on the surface with those fourteen small bas-reliefs, but I worked very hard on making things that would look big even though they were really small.
And when we unveiled it, we scratched off the Styrofoam––because what I did was make the cast in Styrofoam––and the first station appeared, Christ and the Cross, I think, the Second Fall, something like that. It really looked very good at the distance. I found I could go not only to the foot of the [facing] wall but much further on the other side of that wall––because the church wasnÕt finished––it was very hard not to see in detail that station. So there I had solved the problem and solved it right. And I think that is the whole business of the monumental artist with bas-relief, so as with painting.
I can, of course, and I do other pictures, but IÕve done so much of other things that I question on my side that question of eternal rectangles that is mobile and on which the spectator can center himself, with his nose actually physically in the center of the surface, and then look at the picture. IÕm interested in more complex problems. They come all the time in mural painting even if the surface of the wall is flat. ItÕs not always bad. Even if it is flat there is always the question of the diagonal point of view. Both looking from down-up––the distortions, of course, that you have to correct––or looking sideways, when you enter a building. Of course, you donÕt center yourself like you would underneath a picture.
No, the wall is not a rectangle as a rule. You can look at the bank, for example, here, where if you flatten it, of course––the ribbon on which I painted the fresco––it would be a rectangle, but that is a ribbon that is weaving its way in space. It is a very different affair from a rectangle.
Well, there is something to that, of course. That is, itÕs the same difference between the theatre on the stage and the movie on the screen. If I go and see a movie on the screen, I donÕt like very much to be on the side seat in which I have a strong perspective deformation. If I go to the theatre, there is, of course, no such deformation, just a change of relationship between the position of the actors. And I think that painting would have an edge, in that sense, on sculpture because itÕs really more difficult. And I like those problems. The Mililani Church––going back to that single job––is an in-between because itÕs a low bas-relief. There were so many electric cogs and tubes and pipes and whatnot in the wall that I was allowed only four inches thickness to represent the sense of depth, so that they are really more like cut-outs than things in the round, and there is an illusion very similar to what you have in painting.
Well, I started my career as a carver, direct carving of wood, and they were heavily polychromed, those earlier reliefs. Some people thought I was a Breton peasant when they saw those things. I remember going and seeing Dom Besse. He was a Benedictine and interested in the revival in the liturgical arts. I must have been in my teens. I carried some of my wood carvings with me, and I was interested in his opinion. He was the great man about modern art in the church. That was around 1916 or Õ17. And he looked at my things, and he said it was very nice. He could see that I just came directly from Brittany and I should return there so as not to be spoiled by the big city. Of course, I was born and raised in Paris, so it applied only in a symbolical sense. But I had done and I started with polychrome painting.
Yes, very much so. I started, I think, being interested in art, liturgical arts, when we were in our teens. I wouldnÕt say early teens but middle teens nearly. There was a group of us in Paris. We were terribly interested in that renewal of liturgical art because the art of churches was mostly awfully bad, neo-Gothic and so on, and we were going to do great things. So we banded ourselves together in a group that was called the Notre-Dame Guild. We were very fervent both in our prayers and in our hearts. At the time, there were some liturgical, I would say, masters, or what we considered masters in modern art, who were interested in the same things. One of the most prominent was Maurice Denis. And we had Maurice Denis come and talk to us, talk to the group, the Gilde Notre-Dame. There was another one who didnÕt quite survive––maybe they will revive his works sometime––was Desvallires. And Desvallires was a man who was unhappily the near force but not quite the force, so that when the real force came along, like Georges Rouault, Desvallires appeared as a mild thing compared with Rouault. We were not that modern that we enjoyed Georges Rouault. Of course, we have to remember that was either before or just the beginning of the First World War. And Maurice Denis was perhaps the sort of influence on me––and his Neo-Impressionist or [Post-Impressionist] sort of art––in my very beginning.
There was another man who––why? I donÕt know why––has not survived: a great monumental artist, Marcel-Lenoir. It was a strange case because he was a mural painter, but he never got a commission in his life. So he had to build his own walls. He built a little wall that he could put on wheels and carried this wall with the fresco painted on it to the salon. And really the first frescoes I saw that were true frescoes were by Marcel-Lenoir, put on the sort of a fake wall that he had to put up himself. That was a great example for me. There was something heroic about the man.
Well, certainly there is an impact of HawaiÔi. The place has put me very much at ease here. I donÕt mean as a fellow who enjoys the sunshine, sunbathing on the beach. But I worked very hard digging into the ancient Hawaiian culture. I donÕt have too much in my art that represents Hawaiian things. Oh, I have some, but itÕs mostly through the language, I think, that I got close to the old Hawaiian spirit. [Not so much that it was] the language I wrote, but I have a number of stage plays in the Hawaiian language. One of them was put on. I hope that others will be. ItÕs rather a strange avocation, plays written in what people think is a forgotten language. But I learned a lot through the construction, through the genius of the language. I would say, though, that IÕm not especially or specifically a landscape painter and that the modern HawaiÔi that people enjoy is not exactly my HawaiÔi. I think my HawaiÔi disappeared when Captain Cook landed here.
Oh yes. I can do that, of course. You are looking at my fresco here that has some banana trees and papaya trees and ti leaf plants, some red ones and some gray ones. I love plants, but I would feel that I donÕt love plants as still life. I have always a very vivid impression that they are closer to animals, and if you look for pre-HawaiÔi or pre-Cook HawaiÔi in the present HawaiÔi, the native plants are about the most imposing thing that you can catch on to what ancient HawaiÔi was. And I think thatÕs what makes me do those frescoes of plants, leaves mostly, if you look at them, and a few landscapes of hala forests that have mana. Actually I always have a sort of sacred feeling when I look at hala groves. After the first time by those Seven Falls where there were some beautiful hala grovesÉI think they have been reordered into a park, which probably doesnÕt have the same feeling. But the hala still for me have the significance that is very close to the kahunaÕs mana of the gods and all those things.
Well, that is in one piece. I mean, you donÕt find so easily in HawaiÔi the life that the people were living in prediscovery times. When I went to Fiji, I went there, of course, to do a commission, and the commission was in the missionary church. But the [Catholic] missionary church was really in the neck of the woods. It wasnÕt even in the village, fifty years or so ago. But that particular mission had been severed from the bailiwick, we could say, of the chief, and the chief didnÕt like too much that idea of having that thing outside of the villages, so he hadnÕt visited them. [The villages had] progressed. [Advances made by] one of the chiefs in the villages hadnÕt followed in the mission. So [what] I found there are conditions that were really, well, prediscovery, prediscovery of Fiji. There none of the racial imports, none of the Indo-Fijians were [in] agriculture there. They were all Melanesians, and they were all Melanesians living under what I would call the original conditions. IÕd rather say original than primitive. For example, in the villages, there had been imports of English crockery for the kitchens, and so when people had them replaced, they rolled pots, hand-made, like pots by English [potters]. But at the mission they were still using the black pots. In fact, I have some nice ones in the house here. So that was another angle on that trying to not deny but to negate anyhow the approach of the haole or the white people and [to] try to find out the genius proper to the native races, Polynesians here, Melanesians there. And that is probably also why IÕve made so many pictures of Fiji and Fijian people.
Well yes, itÕs something racial and very real in me. And when you read about GauguinÉ Few people have taken seriously the fact––it wasnÕt a myth, it was a fact––that he had a great-grandmother who was a pure Peruvian Indian. He liked to say that she was a high chiefess. Perhaps she was, but she was anyway a half-Peruvian Indian, and if you look at the profile of Gauguin, you certainly know that he has Peruvian Indian blood. And everybody, you know, uses mathematics and computed so only a sixty-fourth or something of his blood. It counted terrifically on him, and it made him unhappy until he had found something closer to what IÕd call the original conditions, his great-grandmother. And IÕm in the same fix. I am as Gauguin was: I have a great-grandmother who was an Aztec Indian. I think my grandfather liked to say she was a chiefess. I donÕt know about that, but she was a pure Aztec Indian. And it counts very much. ItÕs not a sixty-fourth of me. ItÕs nearly more than a half of me, because without realizing it and not consciously––from Paris––of course, I was born and reared in Paris––you can say for all my life––has been a search for what IÕve called as you see, the original conditions. I donÕt call them primitive because they come natural to me.
Well, that would mean butting against the idea of money as the supreme good. And I think that that idea is so strongly entrenched that we canÕt do anything about it. It certainly has a mastery of countries that hold the world, that own the world, I could say. Or where I have found money as the supreme good. You canÕt go against the grain of that. When I was in India, I found a number of people who didnÕt have that idea. In fact the idea didnÕt seem to have reached them. Somewhere in the north––it was the source of the Ganges––and those [Indians] were happy with other things. They prayed to the rising sun and meditated, and all their foods, all their actions, were aimed to what we could call roughly no [blank] god. However, their gods were, of course, very poor, and they were very despised by the merchant class and so on, who perhaps had little scruples and realized that they had the best part, those meditative gods, while they themselves were simply becoming rich. IÕm not the man of action in that sense, but I think if I stay with my own values, which are a little different from American values, and if I express them in my works, monumental or not, I will have done my job.
Well, itÕs not really the Ōgood life,Ķ your nice life with all the amenities of the gadgets, all the computers to ease your task. No, I think that [there are still original conditions] in the world––I mean for a few more generations and corners of the world that havenÕt yet been spoiled by those ideas of success and so on––and we can always go there, [places like] Fiji. Or we can go there mentally. We donÕt have to go there with our bodies like Gauguin did. And if we keep in our minds the certain island of––you could call it purity, if you want––as against that idea of continuous gain, we shall have our own world, if not the outer world that we want.
Well, of course, IÕm not an art critic––that isnÕt true, that, because I write for the Star-Bulletin. I write in the Star-Bulletin about things I like because I donÕt like to say nasty things or even indifferent things, and there is quite a number of shows that have been around that I have not reviewed [for that reason]. ItÕs not a question of non-objective or objective because the masters that I prefer around are actually non-objective masters that are in our generation. If you look around the walls of this room, youÕll find out that Josef Albers is myÉthe great master really, the man that I respect immensely, and that heÕs pure abstract, and my feeling is also close to also being pure abstract in the picture that I chose. [blank] and Ed Stasack in the picture.
There is something timeless or that is expressed better––in the sense of timelessness or art is expressed––within abstract terms (and I mean abstract out of quality, of course)––than it is in objective art, representational art, unless the representational art is done by a master, in which case it can imbue all the personages, all the action, all the [blank] whatever it deserves with timelessness. [It seems a] paradox, but for example, you take Claude Monet. Monet was impressed by the moment and yet he had himself such a quality of pure painting that he communicates in those pictures of the moment an absolute sense of timelessness. They are really meditative pictures. And he is, of course, considered an Impressionist, that is representational. So there is no borderline or hard line between representational and non-objective.
Well, IÕm sorry that nature has no significance for––as you say––these generations, because nature is the fountainhead of all inspiration. In the old days, I used to say that nature is a reflection of God, and I think that is very close to the truth. And when you speak of generations, I frankly donÕt know what youÕre talking about. I mean when art is done by artists, the artist is––of course, you have to think of a certain level of art––but the artist is by [nature] a highly creative man. He can reflect things around him, but heÕs a highly creative man and very often goes against the grain of his generation. So if a whole generation [loses] the sense of nature, I would say that if you want to know the artist of your generation that is a great artist, look for one who goes against the grain. Look for one who has not [lost] the sense of nature.
 The original text is an eight-page, typed transcription of a recorded interview done around February 1971, just after the completion of Way of the Cross, in Mililani, OÔahu, HawaiÔi. The text is now in the Jean Charlot Collection, Hamilton Library, University of HawaiÔi at Mānoa. The interview was done in CharlotÕs home in Kahala, which is mentioned several times, probably by a newspaper reporter new to the subjects Charlot discusses.
The audiotape is unfortunately unavailable. The transcriber omitted the questions Charlot was asked, but they can be guessed. I have added ŌQuestionĶ to mark each location.
The transcription is faulty and seems to have been amended by several hands. I have accepted only some of these notes. I have noted significant changes, but have made minor changes silently. Added words are usually in brackets. Edited by John Charlot.
 Way of the Cross, 1971, Styrofoam reverse sculpture cast with the cement wall, fourteen panels, each 20 X 16 in., Church of St. John Apostle and Evangelist, Mililani, HawaiÔi. The stations were completed November l970 and cast in situ February 1971. Vladimir Ossipoff was the architect. Charlot refers below to Francis Haar, HawaiÔi photographer.
 Early Contacts of HawaiÔi with Outer World, 1966, total area 9 X 98 ft., First National Bank (now First Hawaiian bank), Waikīkī Branch, Honolulu, HawaiÔi.
 Transcription: so be it.
 On this section and the people mentioned, see John Charlot, Jean Charlot: Life and Work, volume 1, chapter 5, jeancharlot.org.
 Transcription: The place has been very much at ease here.
 Word supplied from discussion below.
 The last three words have been supplied by the editor.
 Transcription: are.
 That is, the traditional Fijian pots. The above passage required reconstruction. I thank Mary Griffin and Caroline Klarr for their help.
 Transcription: rather.
 The last three words supplied by the editor. Charlot was incensed at the American equation of a Ōgood lifeĶ with a materially comfortable one.
 The typescript reads: an [blank] man. Someone has written Ōhighly relatedĶ into this blank and the one below. I believe the audiotape might have had Ōhighly creativeĶ in these blanks. ŌHighly relatedĶ does not accord with Ōgoes against the grain.Ķ
 The original transcription reads: Ō[find him] in the one who goes againstĶ and ŌAnd get one who has not.Ķ These phrases have been replaced in handwriting by Ōl/Look at.Ķ I have substituted Ōl/Look for.Ķ