SCULPTURE, EASTER ISLAND
Wood, obsidian, likely pig bone (Sus scrofa)
Height: 22 in (55.9 cm)
Walter Knoche, Berlin, collected in situ in 1911
Alfred Flechtheim, Berlin, acquired from the above in the 1920s
Kurt Mettler, Paris, presumably acquired from the above in 1929
Pierre Loeb, Paris, acquired from the above by early 1930
Helena Rubinstein, Paris, and New York, acquired from the above by 1938
Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, The Helena Rubinstein Collection: African and Oceanic Art, Part Three, October 15, 1966, lot 97
Private Collection, acquired at the above auction
Sotheby’s, London, July 14, 1970, lot 75, consigned by the above
Private Collection, Paris, acquired at the above auction
Harry A. Franklin, Beverly Hills, acquired from the above in 1972
John Macmillan Brown, The Riddle of the Pacific, London, 1924, p. 142
Walter Knoche, Die Osterinsel. Eine Zusammenfassung der chilenischen Osterinselexpedition, Concepción, 1925, cover and pl. 33
Tepano Jaussen, "L’île de Pâques", Cahiers d'art, Vol. 4, Nos. 2-3, March-April, 1929, p. 114, fig. 186
M. V. Marquetty, ed., Exposition d’art africain et d’art océanien, Paris, 1930, p. 29, cat. no. 416 (listed)
José Pijoán, Summa Artis: Historia general del arte. Vol. I. Arte de los pueblos aborígenes, Madrid, 1931, p. 103, fig. 143
Stéphen Chauvet, L’île de Pâques et ses mystères, Paris, 1935, pl. LIII, fig. 150
Vogue, August 15, 1938, pp. 32-33
Pierre Loeb, Voyage à travers la peinture, Paris, 1946, p. 29 (mentioned)
Edward Dodd, Polynesian Art: the Ring of Fire, New York, 1967, p. 240 (incorrectly listed as being in the collection of the Musée de l'Homme, Paris)
Suzanne Slesin, Over the Top: Helena Rubinstein. Extraordinary Style, Beauty, Art, Fashion, Design, New York, 2003, p. 88 (photograph from August 1938 issue of Vogue)
George R. Ellis, Oceanic Art: A Celebration of Form, San Diego, 2009, p. 54, cat. no. 33
Paul G. Bahn, Catherine Orliac, and Michel Orliac, "Picasso and the Easter Island 'Palm'", Rapa Nui Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, May 2015, p. 47, fig. 3 (photograph from The Riddle of the Pacific)
Walter Knoche (Hermann Mückler, ed.), Die Osterinsel. Die chilenische Osterinsel-Expedition von 1911, Wiesbaden, 2015, p. 51, pl. 33 (photograph from The Riddle of the Pacific), and p. 268, pl. 33 (photograph from Die Osterinsel. Eine Zusammenfassung der chilenischen Osterinselexpedition)
Ian Conrich and Hermann Mückler, eds, Rapa Nui - Easter Island: Cultural and Historical Perspectives, Berlin, 2016, p. 24, fig. 3b (photograph from The Riddle of the Pacific)
Charles-Wesley Hourdé and Nicolas Rolland, eds, Galerie Pigalle Afrique Océanie 1930. Une exposition mythique, Paris, 2018, p. 318, cat. no. 416
Galerie du théâtre Pigalle, Paris, Exposition d'art africain et d'art océanien, February 28 - April 1, 1930
Baltimore Museum of Art, Art of the Pacific Islands, (long term loan), July 1, 2000 – June 24, 2008
San Diego Museum of Art, Oceanic Art: A Celebration of Form, January 31, 2009 - January 3, 2010
The art of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, occupies a singular position in world culture. One of the most remote inhabited locations on earth, this volcanic island was home to a culture which developed in isolation for a period of about a thousand years. This enigmatic civilization was first contacted by Europeans in the eighteenth century (it was first sighted on Easter Sunday, 1722, and from this day takes its Western name), and is known to the world through its enduring sculpture. While the monumental stone figures, moai, are perhaps the best-known images of all Oceanic art, the wood sculptures of Easter Island are less popularly known and until recently have been little-studied. Their portable nature, however, allowed them to find their way into European collections where they exerted a powerful influence on European artists from the 1870s to the 1930s. Recent scholarship has vastly enhanced our understanding of Easter Island, and although its mysteries remain, the Easter Islanders’ sculptural accomplishments are today acknowledged as some of the finest in human history.
The sculpture of Rapa Nui developed in isolation and possesses characteristics not present in any other art tradition. Magisterial expressions of the human form are combined with wildly imaginative and deeply enigmatic departures from reality: men transform into birds, lizards, and fish; anatomy is abstracted, confounded, and inverted in complex ways; and highly specific symbolism alludes to a refined cultural system which has been lost to memory, and which we will likely never fully decipher.
The subject of the present sculpture is a life-sized human head, of nearly life size, with an extraordinarily surrealistic revision of the human body: two fleshy arms emerge where the neck should be, in a wide inverted V shape. Like many Rapa Nui wood figures this sculpture has no way to rest on its own, and therefore was probably intended to be displayed suspended. An intense expression confronts the viewer: with eyes inlaid with pig bone to represent the whites of the eyes, and obsidian to represent the pupils; the inlay of the proper left eye was long ago lost. The head strongly recalls the physiognomy of the famous Easter Island moai. The anatomy on the reverse of the figure further condenses and re-imagines the human form, with the suggestion of buttocks at the base of the ‘neck’ between the arms.
One of the great mysteries of Easter Island relates to the presence of the monumental stone moai. Early visitors puzzled at how these were erected, in the absence of poles from large trees which would have made their movement possible. We now understand that at the height of the culture, trees were abundant on the island; these provided the mechanical material for the erection of the moai, as well as the medium for a sophisticated wood carving tradition. The reasons for the deforestation, like many aspects of Easter Island history, are uncertain; it was perhaps the result of hubristic overuse in construction of the moai, or the demands of overpopulation and competition on a tiny island. The large scale of the present sculpture suggest that it came from an older period of production, when such a wood matrix would still have been available.
The arts of Easter Island have held a particular appeal for the early 20th century avant-garde, as is attested by this sculpture’s distinguished provenance. After being collected in situ by the German geographer and meteorologist Walter Knoche, this sculpture was acquired by Alfred Flechtheim, one of the most significant figures in the early 20th century appreciation of the art of the European avant-garde. The exact date at which Flechtheim acquired the sculpture from Knoche is unknown, but it was probably in the mid-1920s. At this time advertisements in avant-garde periodicals for Flechtheim’s galleries in Berlin and Dusseldorf mention that they offered works by “contemporary masters” alongside “Polynesian sculptures”. In 1929 the sculpture was published as belonging to Flechtheim in the special Oceanic art edition of the modernist periodical Cahiers d’art.
By December 1929 the sculpture was with Kurt Mettler, a young Swiss collector and dealer who had just opened his first gallery in Paris. It was at Mettler’s gallery that Pierre Loeb, the legendary dealer of modern art, chanced upon this object. Loeb does not record the date, but it was presumably either late in 1929 or very early in 1930, since in February of that year the sculpture was loaned by Loeb to the historic exposition d'art africain et d'art océanien at the galerie du théâtre Pigalle in Paris, a momentous exhibition recently revisited by Charles-Wesley Hourdé and Nicolas Rolland in their important monograph.
In his memoir, Voyage à travers la peinture, Loeb recalls his encounter with the present sculpture, which he eventually sold to Helena Rubinstein, and another Easter Island object with a similarly fascinating story. His vivid description of his “discovery”, repeated here, illustrates the allure which Easter Island sculpture possessed for the avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s:
Strolling, one day, along the faubourg Saint-Honoré, I came to Mettler’s, the youngest of our colleagues. I spotted a vitrine full of fetishes from Easter Island. They were little bearded characters with prominent cheekbones and ribs, skeletal, slightly hunched, leaning forward, and of indescribable sadness. Amongst them were two exceptional objects: the first was a head of almost life size. From each side, where the ears would usually be, there emerged two small arms. The second object was a hand and forearm, carved from a very hard wood. This hand, slightly smaller than a man’s, was of exceptional sensitivity. Like all Easter Island sculptures, it gave an impression of solitude that is equalled only by that of the Island itself, lost in the heart of the Pacific, its civilization forever a mystery. I would never have wanted to part with this sculpture, but Picasso saw it and desired it. A friend wrote me a last letter from France in 1942. She had telephoned the great artist to give him news of me, and he told her “do you know what I have in my hand at this very moment? The hand from Easter Island which Pierre gave me” .
1 Loeb, Voyage à travers la peinture, Paris 1946, pp. 29-30