A group of Sentani sculptures including the present female statue was collected in now legendary circumstances in 1929, as discussed in the below essay by the scholar Virginia Lee-Webb, author of Ancestors of the Lake: Art of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay, New Guinea, published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name at the Menil Collection, Houston, in 2011.
These figures were dispersed among avant-garde art collectors in the Parisian milieu of Jacques Viot and Pierre Loeb, and several have taken on mythic status in the corpus of Oceanic art: the double figure known as Le Lys, today in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, was photographed by Man Ray and inspired Max Ernst's 1935 sculpture Les asperges de la lune; another found its way into the legendary collection of cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein; and others are now in several major institutional collections in Europe and America including the musée du quai Branly, Paris, the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, the Museum der Kulturen, Basel, the Menil Collection, Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the de Young Museum, FAMSF, San Francisco, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Very few Sentani sculptures now remain in private hands, and the present female statue is among the finest of the corpus.
When it arrived in Paris in 1929-30, the present female statue found its way into the collection of Dr. Maurice Girardin, a dentist who became an important devotee of the movements in contemporary art at the time, as a collector and champion of artists such as Amadeo Modigliani (see fig. 1, previously in Girardin's collection), Marcel Gromaire (see fig. 2, a portrait of Girardin painted by Gromaire), Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy and Bernard Buffet. The aesthetics of Girardin's Sentani female statue perfectly complement the exciting developments in modern European art of the time, and confirm the affinity between those artists and the now-anonymous sculptors of Lake Sentani.
A FEMALE STATUE FROM LAKE SENTANI
Virginia-Lee Webb, Ph.D.
This masterpiece is one of a handful of sculptures from a legendary corpus. Few groups of sculptures associated with a single location and individual compare to the renowned figurative works from Lake Sentani collected by Jacques Viot in 1929. Let us take a few steps back and set the stage for the context in which this rare and important sculpture was collected.
Lake Sentani is located west and inland from Humboldt Bay off the north coast of the island of New Guinea in the modern day province of Papua. This western half of the island was annexed by Indonesia in 1963. Prior to then, the area had been annexed by the Dutch in 1848 part of their East Indies. It was during this period that Lake Sentani was first seen. The nearby region of Humboldt Bay was seen by the French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1827, but neither he nor the sailors on several groups of ships noticed the Lake Sentani region. The Dutch Etna Expedition and others that followed, reached Humboldt Bay in 1858. While an American entomologist encountered the Lake in 1892, it was the Dutch missionary G.L. Bink who visited the villages on the eastern side of Lake Sentani. (Van Duuren in Webb, Ancestors of the Lake, 2011, pp. 31-32) Expeditions by Dutch and German scientists Arthur Wichmann, G.A.J. van der Sande and H.A. Lorentz followed in 1903.
The people and culture of Lake Sentani did not fare well under missionary and colonial domination. Religious and colonial authorities suppressed traditional beliefs in extreme ways. Many of the related sculptures and structures that contained them were destroyed. What nature's storms and normal decay did not destroy, the ruling powers did. Three major ceremonial houses were burnt in 1925 at their urging. Most interior carvings were lost, and others went into the water or coastal mud. The ethnologist, photographer and collector Paul Wirz visited Sentani before (1921) and after (1926) this destruction, enabling him to both document and collect in villages.
However, despite the multiple people and forces visiting the region, no single person brought more fame to the art of Lake Sentani than the French writer, art dealer and traveler Jacques Viot. Philippe Peltier has described Viot's life in Paris (ibid., pp. 49-55). In 1925 Viot was focused on organizing the first exhibit of Jean Miró's paintings and Surrealist drawings at the Galerie Pierre. Ever the showman, the exhibition and opening was an important and very glamorous event. But despite Viot's success, his debts caused him to suddenly disappear from Paris and live under a false name for nearly two years. Spotted in Tahiti then returning to Paris in late 1928, he entered into an agreement with Pierre Loeb in April 1929 to repay his debts to his Galerie Pierre. Viot would travel to the Pacific region and collect works to be sold by Loeb in Paris.
It is possible that Viot and Loeb knew of the sculptures, maro (barkcloth), and material culture from the Sentani region from the publications, public lectures and films of Paul Wirz. In addition to Wirz's books illustrated with photos, 'he made a 35mm film which he showed publicly on lecture tours starting in 1927. The items collected went directly on show in Basel after arrival in 1926.' (Christian Kaufmann, personal communication, 2008)
Influences notwithstanding, according to Viot's photographs probably made in Jayapura with local men and his cook holding the sculptures. Viot collected at least eighteen figurative sculptures and two drums from Sentani as well as barkcloths (maro) and other objects from the neighboring region. The magnificent female sculpture offered here is pictured in one of his 1929 photos (PP0004200).
The present female figure has the large black number '130' painted on the lower reverse. Other figures in the corpus have similarly painted numbers, but no systematic list of the sculptures and their locations has yet been found. So we do not know from which village the sculptures originated or if they were numbered in the sequence in which they were collected, packed or photographed.
The female figure now offered at Sotheby's (and the one next to it in Viot's photo) is stylistically similar to one in the Menil Collection (X0101). The latter Menil figure was also collected by Viot, and can be seen in his photograph (PP0004189).
By the cut marks visible on the reverse, the present female figure was narrowly attached at its lower center to another piece of wood. It is likely that it was the upper part of a post that jutted out from the floor and supported a cross beam. Or it might have been connected to another figure at its base, perhaps the other figure seen with it in Viot's photo. If yes, it would be related to the double figure in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 1979.206.1441) also collected by Viot. That double figure has similar stylistic elements.
The three dimensional carving of the present female figure itself indicates that it was intended to be visible in the round, not a relief carving. The figure is clearly a female and the carver has taken advantage of the width of the wood to depict the narrow shoulders, arms and legs in soft, volumetric relief. Her elbows are slightly bent on either side of the torso, with the hands resting at the top of both thighs. Interestingly, one hand has five fingers and the other six. The knees as well are softly indicated, with the calves of the legs taught and toes pointed straight downward. The round crown of her head has a slight relief at her forehead to indicate the hairline. The facial elements are indicated in a similar fashion as others from the corpus; linear incisions indicate circular eyes, a single upturned line shows the slightly smiling mouth and the eyebrows mirror that movement in a downwardly curved direction. The narrow protruding nose, flat ears and flat downward pointed feet and toes are also iconic features.
The use of these fantastic figures in ceremonial house interiors was documented by Wirz and also noted by Viot. Jutting out through the floor, the primordial ancestor was visible and present. Wirz also reported and photographed figures in Ayafo that were placed in front of men's initiation houses during ritual periods. (Smidt in ibid., p. 25).
In closing, while we connect this marvelous sculpture from Lake Sentani to an outside visitor who promoted them with daring adventure and great flair, let us not allow the story to overshadow the extraordinary talent of the unnamed sculptor who created this masterwork.
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