The compelling video installation acquired by QAGOMA Foundation’s 2015 Appeal, In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, derives its inspiration from wallpaper designed in France circa 1800.
It is arguably one of the most skilfully created and well-designed panoramas that had ever been made in Europe.
Sketching the scene
The title of Reihana’s work stems from Captain Cook and his first voyage to the South Pacific and one that would turn out to be a highly significant journey in many ways. Cook’s particular task, given to him in an envelope to be opened after setting sail, was to record the passage of Venus across the sun. His voyages provided much of the source material for the panoramic wallpapers from France. One in particular was appropriated by Reihana to become the foundation for her own digital designs.
At the time the original panorama was designed, the French and the British fleets had claimed territory over much of the Pacific Ocean with the aid of Captain Cook’s maps. As well as producing accurate maps of many of the South Sea Islands, his adventures had brought back images, sketches, stories and artefacts that created considerable fascination within Europe.
Tales of the South Seas were widely circulated by those that had taken part in these voyages. It was these many and varied sources that were to inform the designs of the hand crafted and sophisticated wallpapers. The subsequent panoramic narratives depicted on the wallpaper, were composed specifically to illuminate aspects of life from the South Seas to a newly emerging clientele, the European bourgeoisie.
Large as life, the natives were presented and partitioned according to Island communities. These communities were the Tongans, Samoans, Tahitians, and so forth, all part of the Polynesian diaspora. On the walls of the manor houses and chateaux, the Sauvages were pasted up against the wall of colonialism. Segregated into panels, they were effectively subjects of the European gaze.
The meticulous designs of Dufour
Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique was designed by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and manufactured by Joseph Dufour et Cie in France, circa 1800. Dufour’s company was not alone in the production of panoramic wallpapers however. In 1797, the same year as Dufour founded his company, another called Zuber & cie, set up shop in France. Significantly for Reihana, it was Dufour that had the Pacific Islanders (even though Zuber was recognised as the first to develop panoramic wallpapers with his scenes of Switzerland).
These companies produced their cleverly designed wallpapers using the same techniques and similar themes. The Zuber Wallpaper Company is still in business today manufacturing similar designs in near identical ways to those that were produced 200+ years ago. Dufour, as a company, lasted only a few decades before the business was closed. Fortunately it is possible to view the techniques that were used in the design of many scenes produced by these two companies over 250 years ago.
On the Zuber website are many images and information, including a video that provides a fascinating insight into the most distinctly non-digital world of the wallpapers. The results obtained from the techniques, still used today, were then pasted to the walls of the homes en situ. Owners were then able to explain in an animated fashion to guests what each panel represented. In return, the guests were free to gasp in wonderment at the representations of the Noble Savages.
Wealth was displayed by the ownership of these panoramas despite the fact that they were not quite in the genre of the fine arts, or the crafts. They did however, depend upon excellent well designed methods of production that were in part a product of the industrial revolution and also, part of the enlightenment. Even if the audiences were unsure themselves of the genre to which they belonged, they were certainly well understood as unusually fine designs. However, being wallpapers, they were difficult to separate from the walls and therefore there are few Dufours in circulation today as complete, intact works of art.