Nothing says kitsch like black velvet

Edward Leeteg's Tahitia, circa 1950. Credit: Carl Baldwin

The close of Seattle Art Museum’s latest retrospective presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the innovation and daring of an artist who ably conveyed the languid essence of the South Seas.

Paul Gauguin?

Nope — Edgar Leeteg, the master of black velvet painting, whose pictures of nubile nudity adorned post-war Polynesian-themed bars throughout the U.S.

Beginning Friday, a collection of Leeteg paintings owned by local collector David Price will be exhibited at his ad hoc gallery 1016 Alley Arts, the entrance of which is located in the alley behind Hotel 1000, between First and Second Avenues and Madison and Spring Streets. Black velvet works by Leeteg contemporary Burke Tyree will be on view as well.

Friday’s 6 pm – 10 pm opening will feature a performance by nine-piece ukulele combo, The Ukadelics. The show runs through the weekend, noon-5 pm Saturday and Sunday.  

The provenance of Price’s Leeteg paintings is as curious as Edgar Leeteg’s biography.

Born in 1904, Leeteg initially pursued a livelihood of billboard painting, but the onset of the Depression left him with little work and less money. In the 1930s he moved from Illinois to French Polynesia, where he refined his velvet dreams for a dozen years before meeting with a Honolulu promoter — WWII Navy vet Bernard Davis, known as “Aloha Barney” — who became the Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis’ manager) of Leeteg’s art career.

Thereafter, Davis insisted that Leteeg sign his paintings as “Leeteg of Tahiti,” which then begat the sobriquet “the American Gauguin.”

Thriving under Davis’ guidance, the Leeteg franchise became a machine, churning out South Seas escapism much like a Damien Hirst exploit, albeit bereft of that artist’s bombast and excess.

Leeteg’s financial rise was offset by a descent to decadence. As with his contemporary Jackson Pollock (to be sure, esteemed NYT art critic Hilton Kramer would never have put those two in the same sentence) his unslakable thirst for John Barleycorn and young women fed his notoriety. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1953, predating Pollock’s deadly car accident by three years.

The drama of Leeteg’s life is as intriguing as the story behind Price’s Leeteg collection. The paintings originally enhanced the Seven Seas, a tiki-themed supper club opposite Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. When the restaurant closed, the paintings were donated to a college in Arizona, which subsequently transferred them — breathtakingly, considering the lusty subject matter — to Brigham Young University. BYU, in turn, shipped them to the BYU Oahu campus, completing a Polynesian circle. The paintings depicting prurient interest were sold to Price; the campus has retained those with more innocuous subject matter.

In depicting Tahitians, Leeteg would never satisfy an anthropologist’s request for verisimilitude. Both he and Gauguin can be faulted for depicting an idealized people. Unlike Gauguin’s Tahitians though, Leeteg’s subjects bear limited resemblance to the dark skinned, kinky-haired First People of the Polynesian triangle. His wahines are “honkified” — with just enough ethnicity remaining to imply exotica.

But Leeteg was selling escapism, not National Geographic reality. During his day, the South Seas mythology in which he trafficked was nearing a 200-year run.

That history — of white men succumbing to the charms of Tahitian women — dates to the first visit by Westerners to “Otaheite,” 1767, on the 32-gun frigate HMS Dolphin under the command of Samuel Wallis. (Upon dropping anchor he bestowed the clumsy name “King George the Third’s Island” – a far cry from the loveliness of “Tahiti.”) But were the women casting a charm or simply treated as chattel to be used and discarded? According to George Robertson, Master of the Dolphin, “several of the Young Girls was drawen out, some a light coper colour others a mullato and some almost White. The old men made them stand in Rank, and made signs for our people to take which they lyked best, and as many as they liked … .”

Word of such conjugal pleasure spread among British sailors. Notably, 22 years later, the enjoyment of Tahitian indulgences resulted in the insubordination of Captain William Bligh’s crew: After harvesting breadfruit trees, his men decided they’d rather stay in Tahiti than finish the mission for which they signed on. Following their mutiny, and after casting Bligh adrift in a longboat, some mutineers sailed the Bounty to Pitcairn Island, taking their Tahitian “wives” with them, while others remained on Tahiti.

Thus, the lure of Tahiti, imbued with the lore of sexual freedom, beckoned Paul Gauguin, Edgar Leeteg and countless others.

Unlike the hallowed glow of Gauguin’s “Art Through the Ages” reputation, that of Leeteg, the Black Velvet Vagabond, is in the gutter. His paintings are found in disreputable watering holes, not world-class museums. His admirers are more likely merchant marines than well-educated sophisticates. And his works sell on eBay, not at Christies.

But for an untold number of besotted, barstool-perched WWII vets, Leeteg provided the dream of South Seas longing. Today, with the patina of age and Lucky Strikes, those paintings are increasingly revered for the role they played in mythologizing Polynesia. Fittingly, the works by an outsider artist who despised the art establishment are now admired by those with sympathetic views.

David Price among them. He is the first to acknowledge that his collection doesn’t belong in a museum. On the contrary, he hopes to find an appropriate repository in a Polynesian-themed lounge, thereby allowing the paintings to go another full circle.

But for now he’s content to present the collection as a complement to SAM’s “Gauguin & Polynesia” show. Leeteg, whose work was rejected by the 1938 Honolulu Academy of Arts exhibition, would be pleased by the recognition.

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