Arman Manookian: Hawaii's Van Gogh

The Honolulu Academy of Arts offers a small but perfectly formed showcase of Hawaii’s most prominent Modernist painter.

Photo: Courtesy Honolulu Academy of Arts

Even amid the nostalgic décor of the Hotel Hana-Maui, they were head-turners: boldly colored, large-scale canvases painted in the Territorial Era, depicting stylized visions of a Hawaiian paradise.

In one painting (seen above), a Native Hawaiian Adam and chastely covered Eve stand together in a gardenscape that is part Eden and part Dr. Seuss, with a pink sky and blue and green land. In another, a canoe is prepared for launch in precontact Hawaii, its scarlet sail unfurled against an electric blue sky. “It’s a fantasy of Hawaii,” says Theresa Papanikolas, curator of European and American Art at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. But what a fantasy.

The artist who created these flamboyant dreamscapes, Arman Manookian,  is often called Hawaii’s Van Gogh. Manookian was born in Turkey in 1904, immigrating to the United States at age 16 after surviving the horrors of the Armenian genocide. During his six years in Hawaii, this prolific artist created everything from murals to magazine covers—many of them for Paradise of the Pacific, predecessor to this magazine—and then, in 1931, at the age of 27, he took his own life. After death, his reputation continued to grow; in 2005, one of his paintings reportedly sold for $500,000.

It’s not easy to see Manookian’s work these days. Though he is avidly collected, only 27 paintings are known to survive, most in private collections. Three of his finest—two from the recent sale of the Hotel Hāna-Maui’s Manookian collection—will be on display, along with Manookian’s prints and drawings, in “Meaning in Color/Expression in Line: Arman Manookian’s Modernism,” a mini-exhibition that opens in the Academy’s Holt Gallery this month.

Small exhibitions like this one focus on a few works, but can pack as much visual punch as a major show. It also means that, instead of reserving the whole afternoon, you can “come during lunch!” says Papanikolas.

The Arman Manookian exhibit runs from Nov. 4, 2010 to Feb. 27, 2011.