The savages of the Pacific

In 1806 the French artist Jean-Gabriel Charvet premiered one of the first multi-panel artistic wallpapers: it depicted a romanticised and colonial panorama of explorations in the South Pacific.

The Savages of the Pacific
Jean-Gabriel Charvet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Savages of the Pacific, part 2
Jean-Gabriel Charvet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Between 1768 and 1779 James Cook voyaged around the South Pacific, exploring, “discovering” islands that had been populated for hundreds of years, collecting botanical samples, and killing people. His three voyages were extremely popular in Europe, and a romanticised version of the South Pacific as a kind of primitive utopia was widespread. One of the ways it spread was through wallpaper.

But not just any wallpaper! Jean-Gabriel Charvet, a French artist of the late 18th and early 19th century, designed a twenty-panel set of wallpaper images of the idealised South Pacific (plus Hawaii and Nookta Island further north). They were cheap to make – woodblock printing on linen – and so could be purchased by members of the European middle class who aspired to something greater but couldn’t afford a custom mural.

Needless to say, the depictions are completely inaccurate – the figures in Charvet’s wallpaper represent a European view of the South Pacific; he never got closer to the area than South America. The pictures serve to reinforce an essential contrast in the European mind: the people of the Pacific are “natural” (as opposed to “civilised”), “spiritual” (as opposed to “temporal”), “primitive” (as opposed to “industrial”), and “of the past” (as opposed to the European “future”). This stereotype didn’t really correspond with the reality, but Charvet didn’t worry about that too much. Even the foliage in the wallpaper is South American.

In the modern South Pacific, this popular wallpaper panorama has been critiqued, recontextualised, and remade. I’m partial to Lisa Reihana’s 2017 multimedia recreation / deconstruction In Pursuit of Venus:

[Thanks to Nicoletta R. for suggesting this topic.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s