Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds This painting was painted for the Admiralty exhibition at the Royal Academy. But by and large, it was painted for the British people as a view and as a memento of what life was like in the South Pacific. It was really trying to take a piece of the Pacific back. There are definitely elements of the painting that are reflecting the neoclassical style that was sort of in vogue at the time, paying homage to the Renaissance and to Greek and Roman antiquity. As you can see within the painting, the landscape really is the sort of– as I said– the hero of the entire work. Hodges was a landscape painter, so this was very much his forte and his comfort place.
Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds But I think what really evokes and what comes out of the way that he’s captured it is this idea of this terra nullius, that there’s no one there, you know? That the landscape is a reflection of the fact that the land itself is almost like, up for grabs. Or that there’s enough room for a lot of other people to sort of become part of the society. And also just that there’s sort of the fertility of it, and the lushness, and the greenery is, again, another tool to sort of lure in the viewers. And you know, I think that had a really huge impact on the way it was perceived because we didn’t have the modern technology we have now.
Skip to 1 minute and 35 seconds So these paintings really were the postcards from the edge, sort of really inviting the viewer to get a piece of what it may have been like, a Polynesian slice of heaven. So I think that had a huge influence on people and other artists. So they would have seen these. And Gauguin had seen them. And he really did want to go on this sort of pilgrimage to the exotic, is how I think of it, and to go native. So obviously, he went to Tahiti. Very famous for that. It was about 100 years after this. And so he sort of arrived with these images of what Hodges and the other artists on these voyages had done.
Skip to 2 minutes and 17 seconds And unfortunately, was sorely disappointed because colonisation had really taken a hold by that point. So this very sexualized nature of women had really changed. Christianity had come in and really changed the value system. And tatau was no longer practised. A lot of the worshipping of other gods was annihilated as well. So this exotic that had been showcased on the other side of the world was now sort of very much almost becoming a reflection of Western society. Because, you know, this sort of gentle, commerce, Christianity civilization, you know, colonisation had really taken hold.
Skip to 3 minutes and 1 second So I think if we were thinking about re-framing this interpretation of the painting itself, I would look at it in a paradoxical way and go, OK, so this idea of being savage, and primitive, and native– I would counter that by saying, well, actually, you know, these people were very educated, very knowledgeable. A lot of navigation was happening across the Pacific. So you’ve got a whole group of people who can navigate through stars and ocean currents. And so that sort of knowledge without some of the sort of tools that James Cook had and a lot of the other voyagers at the time, this was a different type of knowledge.
Skip to 3 minutes and 38 seconds So if you take a closer look at the female in the foreground, you can see that she has some tatau or tattoo. The importance of this– and I think this is a great contrast to maybe a more Western perception of nudity– is that tatau was a form of clothing. And so this idea that nudity therefore equals sexualization and some sort of erotic thought pattern is not really so prevalent in a Pacific mind frame because tatau is covering your skin. Therefore, you are covered. And there’s no need to sort of add any more layers on to feel more modest. Actually, you can see from the tatau that there was a huge amount of creativity that was being displayed that way.
Skip to 4 minutes and 22 seconds So tatau was not just random markings. There was a whole story, a whole whakapapa or a genealogy attached to it. So it’s not just a small decision. It’s something that is taken on by the owner and has a sense of mana or a sense of giving you something spiritual. So another interpretation is about faith systems that were happening in the Pacific at the time. So there’s the tii, which is the representation of the fertility god that that is looking over the bathers.
Skip to 4 minutes and 54 seconds The enlightenment was really pushing and pulling people out of the darkness, this idea that a lot of Western scholars and philosophers had about wanting to break these shackles of their very oppressive feelings over here at the time, and in the UK, and in England and Europe around Roman Catholicism. And then, almost then having this very ambivalent attitude to colonialism and spirituality in general. So again, instead of seeing the tii as something savage or primitive, actually, it could have been presented as just a different faith system. The natural setting, the nature, and where you are.
Skip to 5 minutes and 32 seconds And I think for me the last idea about being exotic, you know, you could almost ask the question, why are the Pacific people seen as exotic? Why aren’t the Westerners or the Europeans seen as exotic? So really, it is down to, what do you see?
In this video, Jessica Palalagi discusses the painting, A View taken in the bay of Oaite Peha [Vaitepiha] Otaheite [Tahiti] (‘Tahiti Revisited’), painted by William Hodges in 1776.
Appointed by the Admiralty, Hodges recorded the places visited on Cook’s second voyage. The second voyage took place from 1772 to 1775 and on two separate ships, the Resolution and Adventure. The version of the work discussed here was created for the Admiralty after Hodges produced an earlier work for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1776.
Hodges’s paintings have had a lasting influence on European ideas about the Pacific. Jessica offers an alternative interpretation of the painting, which differs from those prioritising a European perspective. As she asks in the video:
When you look at this painting, what do you see?
Go to the link in See Also below to see an online version of the painting and read another interpretation.
© National Maritime Museum