Lecture by Michael Hamson, Savage Club, Melbourne, 21 October 2017
Aesthetics by definition are subjective — being one’s response to and appreciation of beauty. That subjective dimension becomes even more pronounced when discussing artifacts made by another culture where beauty may not have been a facture when producing the object or a facture important in its original use. Yet, nonetheless, as appreciators of New Guinea art, we can and should make aesthetic judgments. The focus of this essay is an attempt to create order out of the subjective, to delineate those factors to consider when judging the quality of a piece of New Guinea art.
It is important to realize that I come at the aesthetics of New Guinea art from three directions. First, my academic background is in art history. Thus I am concerned with art and its historical significance. I’m trained to look at an object and ask myself if it is art and why is it important. Secondly, I have been an active field collector — meaning I don’t just buy from auctions, private collectors or other dealers. I used to go into the bush in Papua New Guinea four times a year to buy directly from people living in the villages. Lastly, it is important to realize that I am a dealer. My livelihood depends on my ability to recognize and judge quality. Putting a value on art, subjecting it to the marketplace has a way of clarifying issues, of quantifying and prioritizing the often amorphous aesthetic qualities.
Seven Aesthetic Criteria For Determining Quality of New Guinea Art (to be concluded in the next edition)
Why the almost fanatical insistence on age? Why is it that most people and the market so highly values older carvings? The most important reason for this relates to the idea of authenticity. And authenticity basically boils down to artistic intention. And artistic intention is of paramount importance in all art. We buy art not just for how it looks but to capture a piece of the artistic genius that passed from the hand of the artist into the work itself. With tribal art these pieces are valued as well as physical representatives of the culture that produced it. Many of these cultures have changed drastically from how they existed when the work was produced. These past cultures are both intriguing and now virtually extinct and thus rare.Related to the idea of authenticity is the fact that with few exceptions the older material is just plain better. The majority of pieces made in the last fifty years were made to sell to tourists. And when the artist’s intention was to carve a piece to sell to a hapless tourist you can be assured that the effort is not the same as when a carver was bringing into existence an ancestral spirit who had the power over life and death.
This elegant male figure is a great pre-contact example. The forms are powerful with the limbs cut free from the torso — newer examples have the arms and legs barely, if at all, cut free from the body. The face has a calm, serene but intense gaze.
One of the easiest and most sure indicators of older New Guinea wood figurative carving is pierced ears and nasal septum. You would be surprised on how true a diagnostic this turns out to be. Basically it works like this: Prior to say 1930 most men had their ears and noses pierced and virtually all representations of the ancestors had the same. Around 1940/50s when the missionary influence started to really take hold most men stopped going through initiation and having their noses pierced. Subsequently, when men would carve things — even authentic ritual pieces — they often neglected to pierce the nose and ears of the figure or mask. You can see the large pierced septum clearly on this piece. You can also begin to see the smooth, almost satiny surface to the wood on some pre-contact pieces.
Karawari Cave pieces from the limestone recesses well up into the upper tributaries of the Karawari River are some of the most powerful pieces of Oceanic art. Such carvings were often only accessed by its owner who would petition the ancestor before a fight to intervene and pre-kill the enemy. This gives the warrior enormous confidence when he considers his opponent already dead — he just doesn’t know it yet.
This ancient female figure shows some important traits of pre-contact New Guinea art — notice the smooth, organic and flowing lines. There is a total lack of straight lines and the clear, competent carving style does not rely on paint to delineate form. Also this carving, like most old ones, is carved from a dense hardwood. This is much more difficult to carve but the result will last for generations. Here, with virtually no paint remaining the composition is clear — with the three-dimensional form of ancestral spirits has often been reduced to two dimensions. Hid high in limestone recesses for generations the carvings are somewhat exposed to the elements and often become eroded fragments but because of the density of the wood and the strength of the carving the expressive and powerful sculptural quality still boldly communicates.
2. Technical Virtuosity
Technical virtuosity is the mastery over materials that comes from taking the intent of the work and its execution very seriously over many years. The effort put into such a thing must befit the gravity of bringing to life a carving that will ultimately enable the owner, his family and his clan to survive and flourish. This heightened level of artistry manifests itself not only in complex and technical masterpieces but also in the artist’s ability to convey expression with the minimal amount of line and form
This pre-contact Karawari River yipwonis an excellent example. There are a lot of fakes of these on the market — less than 1% seen today are real, authentic yipwonfigures. First, they must be carved from a heavy, dense hardwood. Of course the nose must be pierced. Then the body and hooks must have real volume — not just flat, cookie-cutter side-view profile. The head should have a bulging forehead. The hooks will have real meat at the base and be both delicate and powerful. Only a master could compose such an elegant figure with the menacing tension produced by the nearly touching hooks.
High up the northern slopes of the Finisterre Mountains in the Huon Peninsula live the Yopno who create beautifully complex tapacloth. Each descent group (patrilineage) holds a repertoire of graphic elements that are for example, called “lizard,” “eel” or “folded leaf”; others are just called “dot” or “straight line.” The painter is free to compose his painting from a selection of these graphic elements held by his paternal lineage. These are now laid out on the bark cloth in such a way that they are linked to each other. It is most important that the painter applies the two pigments separately, red and black, and that they do not intersect. Thus the finished pattern consists of two separate series of linked graphic elements. These series have to be separated from each other by a narrower or broader part of the light-colored background provided by the bark cloth. Ideally the painter applies first the one and only then the other series of elements. However, only a few men possess the necessary spatial powers of imagination to create in this way a well-balanced composition. Most painters are forced to switch between the two colors because they get uncertain about the space the second series will occupy. Thus, the process of painting requires concentration and contemplation and is consequently seen as a veritable training of the mind. These mental processes are important to the painter. However, the beholder cannot easily gather them from the finished artwork. To him (or her) the light background appears to constitute an equal pattern-forming component, or even according to the way of looking, to be the real pattern: the painting may be understood as a picture puzzle.
This mask from the Lower Ramu River has a refined delicacy that could only have been accomplished by a master-carver. There is both a simplicity in its virtually undecorated surface and a level of finesse that only could have been achieved by a master. Notice the gentle curve of the forehead and how it is repeated in the long sloping nose.
One of the most essential and often overlooked qualities of great New Guinea art is clarity. It is important to remember that New Guinea was without a written language and art served as a very real form of communication. And the quality of clarity that I am trying to define is the ability of the art, through the power of its form, to communicate effectively. In my experience many superior pieces of New Guinea art are able to communicate form through only the barest essential sculptural elements. Again, you can’t get more simple and powerful forms as these. The drum is pared down to the elongated cylinder and the handle an archaic bird beak. These ancient pre-contact pieces exemplify perfectly how raw brutish power can be rendered elegant by a master artist.
Sometimes clarity is achieved by forgoing excess surface decoration, thus allowing the essential compositional elements such as eyes, mouth and nose to be accentuated. Such is the case with this pre-contact, stone-carved Sawos suspension hook.
Clarity is also accomplished by carving the sculptural lines in high relief as in this fine spirit board from the Papuan Gulf. High relief takes advantages of the difference in light falling on the raised portions contrasting against the dark formed by the shadows of the recessed areas. A gifted artist plays with this light and dark juxtaposition to create both structure and graphic quality.
The rest of this article will be published in the next edition of the OAS Journal.