Amongst the Parisian avant-garde of the early 20th century, Oceanic art remained far rarer than African art in artists’ studios even as late as the 1920s. Almost all of the Oceanic objects in Paris at this stage were from Polynesia, the source of Gauguin’s inspiration at the end of the 19th century, such as the tiki figure from the Marquesas Islands, which Picasso acquired in 1907 (see Peltier in Rubin, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art, 1984, p. 106-107).

I am leaving in order to have peace and quiet, to be rid of the influence of civilization. I want only to do simple, very simple art, and to be able to do that, I have to immerse myself in virgin nature, see no one but savages, live their life, with no other thought in mind but to render, the way a child would, the concepts formed in my brain and to do this with the aid of nothing but the primitive means of art, the only means that are good and true.

Paul Gauguin, in L’Echo de Paris, 23 February 1891

In Germany in the early 20th century artists found Oceanic art a source of inspiration. In Dresden and Berlin German Expressionists such as Kirchner, Nolde and Pechstein discovered Melanesian art which had recently entered the collections of the ethnographic museums. They were most fascinated by the art of New Ireland, which would later, during the inter-war period, be such a source of fascination for the Surrealists in Paris.

Whilst modern artists revolutionized twentieth-century painting by tapping into the vocabulary of African art, the Surrealists were interested in the ability of works of art from Oceania and the Americas to evoke emotion. “As happened twenty years ago for Negro sculpture so it happening now with Melanesian and Pre-Columbian art; we do not seek direct inspiration but rather a shared sensibility” (Zervos, “Introduction”, in Cahiers d’art, No. 7-8, 1927, p. 127). The “Surrealist Map of the World”, published in 1929 in the journal Variétés, manifests the Surrealists affinity with Oceanic art. The Pacific Ocean occupies the centre of the world and New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago (including New Ireland) are larger than Africa and Europe.

PF1438_20th_in2« Carte surréaliste du monde. » Publiée dans Variété, 1929. DR


Several exhibitions took place in Paris in this period, including the iconic exhibition of African and Oceanic art organized in 1930 at the galerie du Théâtre Pigalle by Tristan Tzara, Charles Ratton and the gallery owner and major collector of Melanesian art, Pierre Loeb. Art from New Ireland featured prominently, as it did again when Poncetton and Portier published Les arts sauvages – Océanie (1929), which included several New Ireland objects, all from the collections of the Surrealist artists, André Breton, Paul Eluard and Roland Tual. Artists were buying Oceanic art, but also selling it (see the “Breton-Eluard” Collection, 1931, expert Charles Ratton) and exhibiting and publishing works from their collections. All of these factors contributed decisively to the growing aesthetic appreciation of Oceanic art, and its interpretation in the work of artists of the period (see photo above.

Oceanic art had a profound impact on the work of many of the iconic figures of twentieth century art. In London in the 1920s the sculptor Henry Moore discovered the arts of Africa and Oceania after meeting the famous artist and collector Jacob Epstein. The discovery at the British Museum of art from New Ireland marked a turning point in his work, which continued to feed on the abstract vocabulary of Melanesian art (cf. Three Points, 1939-40). The Cobra group, including Karel Appel, Constant, and Corneille, were greatly inspired by Oceanic art. In Paris Giacometti, Matta, and Jean Dubuffet all found it an invigorating source, whilst in New York the affinity was felt by Keith Haring, who found the same striking inspiration in these works (cf. Wilkinson and Krauss in Rubin, ibid., p. 417-452 and
503-534).

PF1438_20th_inExposition au Folkwang Museum, Hagen, ca. 1921. DR


Finally, it is the magnificent uli figures of New Ireland which appear as emblems of the fascination which Oceanic art continues to exert on artists. In 2012-2013, Jeff Koons’ work Antiquity (Uli), places an image of the uli figure from the Louvre (Pavillon des Sessions) at its centre, reviving the muse which inspired all of the artists from the German Expressionists onwards, and offering its own contribution to the Breton’s eternally famous line about his own uli: ‘You frighten, you astonish’ (in Océanie, 1948).


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16 September 2014 | Paris