Maori Figure, Probably from a Palisade Post, North Island, New Zealand
- wood, paua abalone
Kende Galleries, New York, The Important Collection of Primitive Art of the Late Frederick Knize, November 11, 1950, lot 180
Pierre Matisse, New York, acquired at the above auction
Thence by descent
Private Collection, New York, acquired from the above
This enormously commanding Maori sculpture was probably once part of the main palisade post (pou whakarae) of a Maori pā, or defensive settlement or hill fort. These settlements are primarily found in the North Island of New Zealand, and the carving style of this sculpture is consistent with such an attribution. Here the colossal head thrusts forward, its expression intense, the tongue stuck out in a gesture of ritualized challenge. The immense torso is carved with European letters; the exact translation of this inscription is unclear to us, but it may identify the name of an important ancestor, or the place or Chief upon whose territory the sculpture once stood. See Mead, ed., Te Maori: Maori Art from New Zealand Collections, New York, 1984, p. 216, cat. no. 127 for a post figure, pou tokomanawa, with the name of an ancestor carved across its chest in a similar manner. Representations of such great ancestral guardians appear on a number of Maori architectural sculptures; see for instance a doorway, kuwaha, made for the house of an ariki, or paramount chief, illustrated in Mead, ibid., p. 200, cat. no. 84. The green paint on this sculpture is uncommon but by no means unheard of. Paint has powerful associations for Maori; sculptures were most commonly painted with kokowai, red ochre, a substance believed to have been created from the blood shed during the separation of papatūānuku, earth, and ranginui, heaven. Such paint had protective properties that were both physical and spiritual. There was no prohibition on the use of other colors however, and when trade paint became available in the mid-19th century green was amongst the most prized, perhaps because of the color’s association with valuable nephrite, pounamu (see lots 7 and 8). The sculpture itself is older than its paint, which may have been applied in part to protect this venerable sculpture against the effects of the elements.
The recorded European history of this sculpture begins with the Viennese collector Friedrich Wolff (1890-1949), known from 1935 as Frederick Wolff-Knize. Wolff-Knize is best known as a collector of Expressionist art (in particular the paintings of his friend Oskar Kokoschka) and as a patron of Adolf Loos, whose design for the Knize tailoring house in Vienna is a masterpiece of Modernist design. Wolff-Knize was Jewish and a month after the Anschluss in 1938 he left Austria for Paris with his wife and son. A corresponding member of the musée de l’Homme there, Wolff-Knize had during the 1920s and 30s assembled an important collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, which he was compelled to leave behind in Vienna. The entire collection (with the exception of the masks) was seized and exhibited the Naturhistorische Museum in Vienna for the duration of the War. At the end of the war Wolff-Knize was reunited with the collection, which he brought to New York, where he had settled in 1940. He died just a few years later, in 1949, and the following year his “Important Collection of Primitive Art” was sold at auction in New York by Kende Galleries. The preface to the catalogue notes that all documents concerning the “history and provenience have been lost. The objects were acquired from well-known art dealers; including Charles Ratton, Paris, and the Flechtheim Galleries, Berlin; also at auction sales liquidating important art collections.” (Kende Galleries, ed., The Important Collection of Primitive Art of the Late Frederick Knize, 1950, p. 8). An old paper label inscribed "46" and a corresponding "46" in white ink on the reverse of the sculpture provide a tantalizing and ultimately elusive hint of its earlier provenance.
The sculpture was acquired at the Wolff-Knize sale by Pierre Matisse, the art dealer who achieved as legendary a reputation in his field as his father Henri did in his. Pierre Matisse is well-known for his appreciation of African and Oceanic art, which he exhibited in his gallery alongside masterpieces of Modern art. In 1934 Matisse held the first American exhibition devoted solely to Oceanic art, which he arranged in collaboration with the great Charles Ratton and Pierre Loeb of Paris. Matisse kept this monumental Maori sculpture in his private collection, and its imposing form is visible in archival photographs of his New York apartment.