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Splendid Isolation

Art of Easter Island

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

December 11, 2001 to August 4, 2002

Exhibition catalogue cover

Cover of exhibition catalogue with detail of Male Figure, 19th Century, wood, obsidian, and bone, height 16 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Faith-dorian and Martin Wright, in honor of Livo Camperle, 1984, No. 13 in the catalogue

By Carter B. Horsley

Easter Island is famed for its giant stone sculptures of heads that are quite abstractly stylized, but this small and fine exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrates that the island's culture was considerably more sophisticated than the relatively crude large head sculptures.

While the exhibition has one of the impressive large stone heads, it also has several other fascinating and very beautiful works of art of much smaller scale and much greater refinement. These other works fall into two categories: small, lean wooden sculptures of men, known as moai kavakava, and figures made of delicate and brightly painted bark and known as manu uru. There are only five known examples of the latter and four of them are in this exhibition.

Easter Island, which is known in Polynesian as Rapa Nui, is about twice the size of Manhattan and lies about 2,200 miles west of Chile, of which it is a province, in the Pacific Ocean. The Polynesian settlement's nearest populated neighbor is the island of Pitcairn, which is about 900 miles away.

The colossal heads, some up to 30 feet in height, which are known as moai, are believed to have been created between 700 and 1600 A.D., and they were perhaps as many as 1,000 of them ringing the island and facing towards its interior.

According to the excellent exhibition catalogue, all of these heads had fallen over by as early as the 1830s although some have been re-erected over the years by archaeologists.

The culture of Easter Island was an influence for such artists as Paul Gauguin and Pierre Loti and some of its "birdman" sculptures, portraying a god known as Makemake, inspired some Surrealists such as Max Ernst.

"Perhaps no images in Oceanic art are as familiar and yet as enigmatic as the colossal, brooding stone figures of Easter Island. In many ways they are the quintessential symbols of Pacific Island art and culture. Easter Island's other artistic traditions, however, remain largely unfamiliar to wider audiences," noted Philippe de Montebello, the museum's director, in his foreword to the catalogue for the exhibition, which, he added, "is the first American exhibition to survey a broad range of the island's art from the towering stone figures to smaller, more refined works in wood, feathers, fiber, and barkcloth revealing the true richness of artistic expression on this small Pacific island, one of the most remote inhabited places on earth. As elsewhere in Polynesia, artists on Easter Island concentrated primarily on the creation of religious images making visible the gods, spirits and ancestors whose powers they believed controlled the human world. Some of the most accomplished of these images include the island's superbly crafted wood sculptures. These highly polished, subtly carved figures reflect both naturalistic and stylized conceptions of the human body as well as a variety of zoomorphic forms.In their otherworldly blending of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery, these figures appear at times almost Surrealistic.The achievement of Easter Island artists is also evident in the island's diverse decorative arts. Created to adorn the bodies of chiefs and other prominent individuals, these works are intimate in scale."

On Easter Sunday, 1722, an expedition under the command of Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen sailing in the southeast Pacific sighted a small, triangular island formed by three extinct volcanoes. "Although unaware of it at the time, they were probably the first vessels to touch at its shores in more than a thousand years," wrote Eric Kjellgren, assistant curator for Oceanic Art at the museum and organizer of the exhibition, in his catalogue introduction.

"Since Roggeveen first described the moai nearly three centuries ago, Western observers have sought to understand the origins and significance of Easter Island sculpture. In the process, they have attributed the works to almost every culture on earth (and even a few beyond it) with the general exception of the one that actually created them. Although highly speculative theories persist, the origin of Easter Island's art has never been a mystery. The stone giants were erected not a lost race but by the ancestors of the islanders whom Roggeveen encountered and whose descendants live on the island today," Mr. Kjellgren continued.

Easter Islanders are the easternmost of about 36 Polynesian peoples and according to Mr. Kjellgren they share "a common ancestry with other Polynesians, such as the Hawaiians, Tahitians, and the New Zealand Maori." "The ancestors of the Polynesians began to migrate eastward from Island Southeast Asia about 1500 B.C. Known as the Lapita culture, these early voyagers spread rapidly throughout the western Pacific, reaching the previously uninhabited archipelagoes of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa by 1000 B.C. Between 200 B.C. and A.D.1, Polynesian navigators began to move farther eastward into the largely landless expanse of the eastern Pacific, likely settling first in the Cook and Marquesas Islands."

Male figure of barkcloth and reeds

Male Figure, 19th Century, reeds, barkcloth, wood and paint, 15 ¼ inches high, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gift of the Heirs of David Kimball, No. 24 in the catalogue

Island tradition has it that the island was settled by Hotu Matu'a who came with two large sailing canoes. "The island that Hotu Matu'a and his followers found differed greatly from the grassy, treeless land described by the earliest European explorers. Analysis of fossil pollen and impressions of tree trunks preserved in lava flows indicate that Easter Island was originally covered by dense palm forests and stands of toromiro and other small trees. Seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals visited its shores, but, with the possible exception of a single species of lizard, Easter Island originally had no land mammals. To this new land the Polynesians brought their staple crops of taro, sugarcane, yams, sweet potatoes, and bananas, as well as the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera), whose inner bark was processed to create a fine white barkcloth used for garments and ritual effigies. While the settlers' canoes likely carried the four Polynesian domestic animals the pig, dog, chicken and rat only the latter two species survived.the Rapa Nui are unique among Polynesian peoples in their development of an indigenous script. Known as rongorongo, it consisted primarily of stylized anthropomorphic and zoomorphic symbols recorded on wood tablets (kohau rongorongo) and shorter inscriptions and figures and ornaments. Some scholars speculate that rongorongo is a postcontact development created in imitation of European writing, but the precise age and origins of the script have yet to be determined. Once numerous, almost all rongorongo tablets were destroyed or allowed to decay following the adoption of Christianity in the late 1860s, and only about two dozen examples survive. The earliest moai appear to have been created about 1100 and the last in the mid-1600s. Nearly nine hundred were made, ranging from 8 feet in height to an unfinished example that is 71 feet. All but a handful were caved from the soft volcanic tuff of Rano Raraku, a shallow volcanic crater that served as the primary statue quarry. Once completed, many moai were transported to the coast on wood sleds or rollers and erected on large temple platformsmade of earth and stone that had been built to receive them. Social changes, coupled with the eventual over-harvesting and disappearance of the large trees needed to move and erect the massive stone sculptures, ultimately led to the demise of the moai tradition. In its place, new ceremonies and art forms arose devoted privately to the godsand to a diversity of spirits known collectively as akuaku. Foremost among the atua was the creator god, Makemake. Born from a floating skull that was washed from a temple into the sea, Makemake create the first humans and, with his companion, the goddess Hausam brought the first flocks of migratory seabirds to the island. As early as the fifteenth century a series of annual religious rites developed that were centered on Makemake, specifically in his manifestation as the tangata manu, or birdman. In contrast with the moai rites, which were widely dispersed through out the island, the birdman religious focused primarily on a singled ceremonial center known as Orongo. Perched atop the narrow outer rim of Rano Kau, an extinct volcoano at the southwest corner of the island, Orongo is bounded on one side by the steep inner walls of the crater and on the other by sheer cliffs that descend a thousand feet to the sea. In addition to rock art, a number of another works were associated with he birdman rites, including painted dance paddles and a unique series of wall paintings inside the ceremonial houses at Orongo depicting dance paddles, birds, European ships, and other motifs. The island's rare wood birdman figures might have been used during feats associated with the birdman ceremonies. A unique barkcloth effigy that appears to be a ritual headdress - possibly representing Makemake in skull-like form - also might have played a part in the birdman rites.all of the eighteenth-century expeditions combined spent less than a month ashore. Beginning the nineteenth century, however, contacts became increasingly frequent. Explorers continued to touch at the island, but there were also more violent encounters with whalers and, as early as 1804, with slave ships seeking to supply the growing demand for labor in Peruvian guano mines and plantations. Ironically, while the early nineteenth century witnessed increasing social disruption on Easter Island, it was also during this period that the island's wood sculpture enjoyed its greatest effloresence. Wood images likely existed from the time of first settlement, but most of the finest examples date to the first half of the nineteenth century, when a greater technical virtuosity in caring was made possible though the introduction of steel tools and in some instances by supplies of imported wood..This brief burst of artistic activity was severely curtailed beginning in 1862, however, when twenty-two slave ships raided Easter Island in rapid succession. In total, an estimated eight hundred to a thousand islanders, including the ariki mau and nearly all of the high chiefs and priests, were abducted and put to work, primarily in guano mines on islands off the coast of Peru. When the Peruvian government ordered their repatriation the following year, only about a hundred survived, eighty-five of whom died before reaching home. The dozen or so survivors brought smallpox to the island, further decimating the population. Into this atmosphere of death and uncertainty arrived the first Catholic missionary, Eugène Eyraud, in 1864. Forced by the Rapa Nui to leave soon afterward, he later returned with a larger missionary party in 1866, and by 1868 the entire population reportedly had been baptized.The first systematic attempt to document surviving knowledge of Rapa Nui art and culture did not occur until 1914, when the pioneering ethnologist Katerine Routledge and [William Scoresby Routledge] her husband spent a year on the island recording its oral traditions and excavating several archaeological sites. They were followed in 1834 by the Franco-Belgian expedition, whose ethnographer, Alfred Métraux, combined his original research with published sources to reproduce what remains he most comprehensive account of Rapa Nui culture. As early as the 1870s, however, recognition of the accomplishments of Easter Island's master carvers had begun to extend beyond scientific circles. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a broader appreciation for African, oceanic and other indigenous art forms began to flower among European artists and intellectuals. Julien Viaud, a young sailor aboard La Flore when it touched at the island in 1872, later achieved fame as a writer and artist under the pseudonym Pierre Loti. His largely fanciful depictions of the island - as a dreamlike world whose inhabitants lie languidly, is somewhat furtively, amid the ruins of a heroic past - reflect the romanticized conceptions of Polynesian peoples that prevailed in the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, Easter Island objects were collected by European artists and writers as well as by a growing number of art collectors as part of the enthusiasm for what was then known as 'primitive" art. One of the first to champion the appreciation of Rapa Nui objects as works of art was the Latvian-born artist Voldemar Matvejs (1877-1914), a member of he Russian avant-garde. In 1914 Matvejs published The Art of East Island, the earliest known book to approach Rapa Nui works from an aesthetic perspective. A number of prominent Surrealists, including André Breton and Wolfgang Paalen, owned works from the island, which Breton, perhaps inspired by the ruined moai, called the 'Modern Athens of Oceania.' Other Surrealists, such as André Masson, created paintings whose imagery was directly inspired by moai and other Rapa Nui art forms. Perhaps no Western artist was more profoundly influenced by Easter Island imagery than Max Ernest. In both his life and his work, Ernst assumed various artistic personas. One of these was 'Loplop,' a mythical avian being based in part on the Easter Island birdman.The artistic and intellectual climate that fostered this new appreciation of the Easter Island art largely disappeared with the outbreak of World War II, and in the decades that followed the island's wood sculptures were mostly forgotten. The moai, however, achieved great notoriety with the publication in 1958 of Thor Heyerdahl's popular book, Aku Aku, describing his expedition to the island. On the island itself, Rapa Nui culture has in recent years enjoyed a renaissance. The arts of wood and stone carving, which never died out, are being reinvigorated, as are Polynesian music and dance. Many moai have been reerected by modern Archaeologist and once again keep watch over the descendents of their original creators. The aesthetic richness of the island's other artistic traditions, so admired by the early modernists, is today being rediscovered by a new generaton of artists and scholars."

Birdman figure, Easter Island

Birdman Figure, 19th century, wood, 13 inches high, American Museum of Natural History, New York, No. 4 in the catalogue

In her catalogue essay, entitled "Changing Faces: Rapa Nui Statues in the Social Landscape," Jo Anne Van Tilburg notes that the quarry for the moai in a volcanic crater is "composed of consolidated lapilli tuff (compressed volcanic ash), a visually distinctive material that the Rapa Nui used only for moai," adding that "When freshly cut, the tuff is yellow-red, a highly prized, sacred color that was similar to Rapa Nui bodypaints made from red mineralized tuff (kiea), which they pulverized in a stone mortar, or from tumeric (pua or renga), made by grating the tumeric plant into stone basins called tahta..Although it varies in density (thus statues of the same size can vary in weight), weathers rapidly, and is naturally friable, the tuff nevertheless proved to be a near-perfect sculptural material"

Ms. Van Tilburg observed that coral was carved into large eyes for the moai, the pupils of which were made of red scoria, a volcanic rock, but added that "It is highly unlikely that each of the more than three hundred moai that once stood upright on ahu had its own set of coral-and-red-scoria eyes, or that the eyes were always in place." "A limited number were probably kept by the high priests and inserted only during important ceremonies attended by the ariuki mau. Once set into the moai, the eyes activated the ancestral spirit within," she continued.

Moai were carved by teams with as many 15 people and only after they were set upright in an excavated pit at their final site were "all the details save the carved eye sockets, finished, and the surface polished with coral abraders," Ms. Van Tilburg wrote, adding that perhaps 40 Rapa Nui men and women could pull an average moai on an A-frame sled.

In her catalogue essay, entitled "Rapa Nui Art and Aesthetics," Adrienne L. Kaeppler observes that "The conceptual framework of Rapa Nui sculpture can be compared with those of Aotearoa [New Zealand] and Hawi'i." "In each case, the backbone appears to be an important genealogical symbol. The notched Rapa Nui backbone is similar to the notched whakapapa (genealogical objects carved from wood or bone) of the Maori, in which the notches represent succeeding generations of ancestors. The three-dimensionality of the backbone and rib cages of Rapa Nui moai kavakava [classic male wooden figures characterized by an emaciated appearance and often with bas-relief designs atop their heads] and moko [wooden figures combining the features of men and lizards] can also be compared with the structure of Maori meetinghouses, whose ridgepoles are considered to be their backbones and their rafters the ribs of an encompassing ancestor. A number of Hawaiian sculptures with well-defined spinal columns have been associated with genealogical concepts symbolically linked to Lono, the god of peace and agriculture. The rarity of barkcloth suggests that barkcloth-covered figures possibly receptacles for ancestral spirits might have been considered higher-status substitutes for wood figures. Barkcloth constructions are three-dimensional sculptures with an internal framework of reeds or some other plant material. This framework was completely covered with white barkcloth, which was then decorated with designs similar to Rapa Nui body painting and tattoo. Only seven barkcloth constructions are known.The body proportions of the human barkcloth figures are similar to those of the much large stone moai, with the head constituting about one-third of the total height. The moai lack legs altogether, and while the barkcloth figures do have legs, they are de-emphasized and do not seem to affect the overall body proportions because of the way they are bent upward."

Birdman figure from Easter Island
Birdman Figure, 19th Century, legs and base, France, late 19th-early 20th Century, wood, 11 3/8 inches high, Helious Trust Collection; courtesy Franceso Pellizzi, No. 6 in the catalogue

While this small exhibition is dominated by one of the small moai stone heads, many of its small works of art are staggeringly impressive, especially the twisted birdman and the barkcloth figures.

The exhibition was made possible by Compania Sud Americana de Vapores S. A. and Vina Santa Rita S. A. and the excellent catalogue was made possible in part by the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund.

 

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