Sculpture of Polynesia

In conjunction with the Museum of Primitive Art, Allan Wardwell, Curator of Primitive Art at the Art Institute of Chicago organized an exhibition of the Sculpture of Polynesia.

Although the exhibition was handsome it was limited and restricted by the subject matter. Certain significant examples were not included, e.g. some of the more exuberant carvings from New Zealand; indicative examples of Hawaiian material such as the war god and, for an exhibition devoted to a definitive survey of the subject, one of the stone heads from Easter Island that are now in museum collections would.have seemed almost a necessity. Since the breadth of sculptural ideas in Polynesia was limited by comparison with other cultural regions of the Pacific, arts other than sculpture might well have been included—the amazing rubbed and painted tapas, for example.

Paralleling the stratified cultures of this area, with their adherence to convention, the carvings from island groups such as Cook, Society, Austral, and Marquesas have an elegance which is achieved by refinement of surface, careful (though not daring) proportions and an overall air of restraint. Admittedly sculpture of this sort is too limited in scope to achieve very great expressive qualities.

One feels that the emaciated wooden figures from Easter Island though often stultified might possibly have held greater expressive possibilities. The tapa cloth figures from these islands and the headdress, without the reserved form and the refinement and finish of so much other material, indicate a latent if unrealized power. The extreme rarity of such pieces makes them and their potential even more tantalizing.

One can also feel in the Maori carvings from New Zealand a freedom which almost surfaces at times. Seldom does the breakthrough occur and the rococo exuberance of this sculpture is often stultified by a strict conventionality. The Maoris were carvers of extraordinary virtuosity, however, and two pieces were singularly outstanding. The Head From the Base of a Canoe Prow (from the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History) is one; the Lintel Fragment (from the collection of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania) is another that lacks the overstatement so typical of Maori art. In both there was a robustness and, in the Head, an elusive, withdrawn quality.

Whitney Halstead