'Pacific Mona Lisa' set to be unveiled

TOM HUNT
Last updated 11:55 15/03/2012
poedua
DIEGO OPATOWSKI/Fairfax NZ

PACIFIC BEAUTY: Te Papa paintings conservator Melanie Carlisle with the painting Poedua.

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Finally, after more than $2 million and hundreds of hours of work, the Pacific's answer to the Mona Lisa can be unveiled in her full glory.

After more than two years of negotiations, Poedua, painted by John Webber in 1785, arrived at Te Papa - the national museum - in Wellington in November 2010.

The museum spent $2.04 million on the artwork after negotiations with Christie's auction house and the Tahitian dynasty that is believed to have held it for generations.

After a short period on display, the painting  one of the museum's most valuable works has been away getting retouched to bring it back to near its original condition.

''From when [paintings conservator Melanie Carlisle] and I saw it in London it's a huge change,'' Te Papa European art curator Vicki Robson said yesterday.

Ms Carlisle said the restoration began with cleaning off the outer layer of dirt, followed by removal of a layer of varnish with ''little cotton wool swabs''.

It revealed and accentuated finer details - such as a flower behind her ear and Webber's original brush strokes.

That was followed by a layer of varnish, followed by retouching damaged parts of the work, and a final layer of varnish.

''Her hair, when it first arrived, was one flat black blob. But now you can see the individual brush strokes that are the hairs.''

Webber accompanied James Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific from 1776 to 1780.

Also on the voyage was another ship - the Discovery, captained by Lieutenant Charles Clerke - from which two crew deserted in Tahiti.

As the story goes, to get the Tahitian chief to help with their return, Cook locked Princess Poedua, the chief's daughter, her brother and husband in Clerke's ''great cabin'' with her brother and husband. The deserters were returned in about three days.

While the princess was imprisoned in Clerke's tiny cabin, Webber did smaller oil paintings of her, which have since been lost.

On his return to England, he repainted the works on larger canvases for his European audience, and replaced the cramped confines of the cabin-turned-cell with a lush tropical backdrop.

The online Web Gallery of Art describes the model as a ''bare-breasted, mysteriously smiling, Pacific Mona Lisa''.

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