Pacific Impressions: Representations of Pacific Peoples from Gilsemans to Gauguin

3 November 2000 – 18 February 2001

Man of the island of Tanna 1777, engraving from James Cook, A voyage towards the South Pole, 1777

Our current information age is generally thought to have begun with the advent of digital technology and the internet. But perhaps its roots stretch back much further to a time when, before photography and film, the invention of the printing press and the advent of the print medium first allowed information to be visually reproduced and disseminated to the public on a wide scale.

Pacific Impressions: Representations of Pacific Peoples from Gilsemans to Gauguin was the first exhibition to be co-curated by Victoria University Art History Honours students at the Adam Art Gallery. Featuring the original prints of nine different artists, including William Hodges, John Webber and Paul Gauguin, these images depict Pacific peoples from the period of first European contact to colonial settlement and expansion. Images such as these were the primary medium through which the European popular view of the Pacific and its peoples was formed.

When the first European voyages came to the Pacific, experiences were recorded in journals or as drawings. These drawings were later made into prints. Many were pirated, redrawn, re-engraved and represented to an enthusiastic public.

Such images, together with publications, were eagerly sought in Europe and were essential to attracting the settler population. As the Pacific and its peoples became more familiar, images slowly became more interpretative. Eye witness accounts gave way to more narrative compositions and the public’s attention was held by ever more romantic or sensational images. In these prints, themes such as peace and violence, the ‘primitive’ paradise, indigenous costume and Victorian ideas of ethnology and the ‘other’ recur.

A unique record of Pacific life at the points of contact, first settlement and colonisation, these works also present a unique insight into the European gaze. Informed by preconceived notions of the ‘noble savage’ and mediated through the process of reproduction, these images often present problematic impressions of the Pacific and its peoples. Pacific Impressions highlighted the varied focuses of interpretation of the Pacific and its inhabitants in visual documents of the time.

The exhibition was accompanied by a full colour catalogue including essays by each of the participating students.

Organised by Annalee Andres, Esther Burdett, Penelope Campbell, Greg Donson, Catherine Field-Dodgson, Dennis MacManus Richard O’Rorke with David Maskill in co-operation with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.