‘Paradise’ comes to San Diego’s Maritime Museum
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Whether you’re a sailing enthusiast, a confirmed landlubber, or a lover of history, art, and tales of the South Pacific, downtown’s waterfront Maritime Museum has a show for you: “Cook, Melville & Gauguin: Three Voyages to Paradise.” The 156-piece exhibit contains a wealth of art and artifacts relating to the voyages of Captain James Cook (1728-79), writer Herman Melville (1819-91) and artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Among these is the largest display of Gauguin’s sculptures ever shown.
Most of the pieces come from the Kelton Foundation, whose president, Richard Kelton, is an adventurous sailor and renowned collector of Pacific and maritime art. “I love the sea, I’ve sailed to all these areas, and I’ve had a long association with the Maritime Museum,” he said. Though he lives in Santa Monica, he calls San Diego his second home, since the family real estate firm he helmed for 35 years has built over 15,000 homes here.
The exhibit is installed in two parts on two of the museum’s eight historic ships: the Berkeley, a late-19th-century steam ferry, has the art, and the history goes to H.M.S. Surprise, a 1970 replica of an 18th-century Royal Navy frigate, that was seen in “Master & Commander,” and more recently, in “Pirates of the Carribbean 4.”
Your voyage begins on the Berkeley, with a huge modern painting made by Australian elders, representing visions from their Dreamtime. Going below, you enter the world of Gauguin. The standout is a newly-discovered erotic sculpture, believed to be one of the artist’s lost woodcarvings. But there are other delights, like the Japanese-influenced Resurrection Sarcophagus, which he gave to his long-suffering French wife to explain the life choices that kept him from home.
On the Surprise, maritime history comes alive as you walk past a replica of Cook’s cabin, examine a variety of quintants and sextants, watch film clips from Moby Dick, Adventures in Paradise or Mutiny on the Bounty, and really feel what it might have been like to be on one of those voyages of discovery. “We hope this exhibit gives viewers a sense of the importance of attempting to preserve whatever paradises still exist in the world,” Kelton said.
According to his partner, Mary Nicholls, who has accompanied him on many voyages, Richard Kelton is both sailor and scholar. “He just can’t help himself,” she said. “He started focusing on Gauguin in Tahiti; it’s just been a love affair since then. And every long voyage we’ve done, we took one or two scientists along. His major plan was enabling them to reach the islands and pursue their area of research.”
According to Robyn Gallant, Director of Events, the exhibit is quite a coup for the Maritime Museum. “A number of other museums across the country were very disappointed that we got the Kelton collection and they didn’t,” she said.
Museum staff and volunteers, many with their own experiences of sailing the South Pacific, spent months preparing for the exhibit. Among them is La Jollan Neva Sullaway, a former “sea-going hitchhiker” and editor of the impressive Maritime History Journal, which doubles as the show’s catalog. “My familiarity with the area and with Cook, Melville and Gauguin made the opportunity to do the catalog just thrilling for me,” she said. Share the adventure this summer.
1. The Explorer
Cook embodied 18th-century ideals for the pursuit of knowledge. Naturalists and artists onboard his ships collected and recorded the tropical exotica they saw, and accounts of his adventures were bestsellers in Britain. The places he visited seemed truly paradisiacal until he overstayed his welcome in Hawaii, and angry islanders put an end to his exploring.
2. The Author
Melville’s tales of his Pacific adventures, sailing on whaling ships and, for awhile, “going native,” made his early books like “Typee” and “Omoo” big hits in America, though the critical reception of “Moby Dick” sank his literary career. He saw paradise being despoiled by missionaries and colonizers.
3. The Artist
By the time Gauguin sailed from France to Tahiti, traditional culture was waning, but he managed to go native for years, perpetuating his romantic vision by portraying young island women in the lush settings of a paradise that was already lost.
If you go:
What: “Cook, Melville & Gauguin: Three Voyages to Paradise”
Where: Maritime Museum of San Diego, 1492 North Harbor Drive
When: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily to Jan. 1
Tickets: $10, plus museum admission
Contact: (619) 234-9153
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