Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit in the Cast Court at the V & A

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Something catches your eye that you’ve passed many times without seeing. Why now, suddenly?

The suddenness is wonderful and the work completely absorbing. In order to see it at all you have to block out a lot else, a diverting cacophony of other works, a jumble of forms and sizes never meant to be seen together, apparently assembled to no coordinate plan. That’s the beauty of the V & A Cast Court, of course, a host of juxtapositions only permissible because nothing here is real.

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But once you’ve singled one out, the unreality doesn’t count. The plaster isn’t dirty, but it isn’t clean—it does a reasonable job of imitating the worn and mottled look of marble. Sometimes there are signs of its having been coloured—mostly with stone colours, grey and brown. By a fortuitous twist, the roughness of plaster and traces of varnish suit this particular sculptor uncannily well, who was one of the first carvers to make something positive and expressive of irregularity and even of flaws in execution.  

Above all, my new favourite is a conglomerate and the separate parts aren’t precious individually. Not that there aren’t wonderful strokes of invention and plenty of arresting details. On that day it seemed the most gripping large work of sculpture in the world, challenging one of the most powerful plastic statements ever, the great altar at Pergamon, which it couldn’t match for scale and violence, but in narrative variety maybe it came out ahead and had the giddy spectator reaching for parallels like the dramatic profusion of all the novels of Balzac.

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The work I am looking at is Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit for Pisa cathedral executed in 1302-10 with a fair amount of studio help, a fact which makes some critics compare it unfavourably with an earlier, overlapping project by the same sculptor, a pulpit for the parish church of S Andrea in Pistoia, much smaller than this later work, with more of Giovanni’s own carving in the intimate reliefs, which are placed, as they are in Pisa, furthest from the observer.

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It seems that Pisano may have learned from the earlier experiment that the small scale work was somewhat thrown away when mounted well above head-height. So in Pisa he painted with a broader brush and put his energy into a greater proliferation of larger figures at ground level. That is where the best invention occurs in the Pisa pulpit.

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Pulpit is a seriously demeaning name for this marvelous crowd of carved figures who form a cross between a forest and a pavilion full of sculptural movement.

The whole is cylindrical in form, with a richly carved roof (the wide band that contains the reliefs) supported on 8 peripheral columns which converge on a single central support. There is a curving stair for reaching the roof attached to one end, the route which priests and deacons would use to turn the large construction into a humble pulpit, as if its whole purpose was to give them an elevated perch from which to teach and preach.

The phenomenal sculptural energy of the assemblage devotes itself to disguising the supporting columns with an ingenious set of caryatid-like beings. In two cases these are single human figures on pedestals who allow capitals to be planted on their heads.

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In the most thrilling instances – two of them, adjacent – a larger figure appears to bear the brunt but is surrounded by a crowd of four figures approaching life size. These two clusters are the most gripping or enigmatic elements of the whole, one composed of women, the other of men, many of them carrying emblematic objects, like a set of scales or a dead lion suspended upside down. The men are all accompanied by their daemons, three winged animals and an angel.

The moments before you figure out or are told what any of this means are precious, and something to hold onto, even after you have identified the four medium-sized women as Virtues and the four men as Evangelists, the larger female figure dominating the others not Charity – she suckles two infants – but Ecclesia, the Church, and the larger man, Christ.

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At the V & A Ecclesia has lost one of her main accoutrements, a big dove that whispers aggressively in her ear. This idea of inspiration from above occurs repeatedly in the smaller series of sibyls at the level of spandrels supporting the reliefs, one of which (in Pistoia) looks like the inspiration in turn of a memorable sibyl by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling.  Ecclesia may have got separated from her dove after the fire of 1595 when the pulpit was taken to pieces and radically deconstructed, when the parts got scrambled and relations between them were lost, at a time when other sculptural elements probably disappeared.  Interest in returning the pulpit to its original state grew in the 1860s, around the time this cast was made.  The current presentation of the work in Pisa (seen further below) dates from Bacci’s reconstruction of 1926.

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There are many satisfying symmetries buried in the scheme, one female nude and one male, the one based on a famous classical type of modest Venus, now representing Temperance (work out how), the other an unclassical, anxious Hercules, wiry not beefy, a striking antithesis to the familiar Neapolitan giant leaning on his club, worn out by carrying his huge muscles, set against our slender Hercules who contains a nervous soul.

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He is paired with St Michael, a Christian knight. They represent spiritual and worldly heroism respectively, we are told. The two are placed symmetrically in most reconstructions, but they make an odd pair. The saint is sleek and elegant. His wings take some working out and look unnervingly like living tissue. Common opinion holds that this figure cannot be Giovanni’s, and the  choice usually lands on Tino di Camaino, one of Pisano’s ablest pupils who went on to a successful career in which the smoothness of St Michael is frequently repeated.

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The earliest secure attribution to Giovanni Pisano consists of two eagles on the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia (see below) where he worked under his father Nicola. They are extraordinarily lively, engaged in harsh dialogue with each other. A similarly intense interest in the life of beasts keeps turning up throughout Giovanni’s career. In the Pisa pulpit we have the little winged sprites trapped between the Evangelists, the oversized eagles squeezed in between female Virtues and, most alarming of all, the two lions, caryatids, looking up from the prey they are in the middle of tearing to pieces. This ferocity extends the range of emotion captured in the monument to include vivid and convincing rage. Giovanni’s animals usually convey a serious interest in the place of primitive urges in the whole territory of consciousness, not just playing around the edges of the page as in medieval manuscripts.*

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Besides the wonderful replica of one of Giovanni Pisano’s crowning works in the cast court, the V & A possesses two precious fragments securely attributed to this sculptor whom Henry Moore ranked with Michelangelo as the greatest of Italian artists. The rarest is an ivory Christ from a crucifix, in which we find both the energetic movement familiar in his work in the writhing hair played against the crown of thorns, and his characteristic focus on the expressive power of the rib cage.

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The other fragment is a bust-length piece from the projects Moore regarded as the summit of Giovanni’s achievement. These were the figures, half-figures and sculptural groups which had been exposed to the weather on the Pisa baptistry and the façade of Siena cathedral.  The effects of weathering and the modern preference for Giovanni over his father Nicola are strongly connected.  Henry Moore almost admits to reading the wear and tear visible on the outdoor pieces as a kind of fortuitous boldness, as if Giovanni’s characteristic expressionist urgings are pushed further by the weather, as if its ferocity could be attributed to the sculptor, or was, without conscious agency or intention, causing the sculptor to become more himself than ever, or calling into existence the sculptor Pisano would have been if he were Moore’s contemporary. Something similar is at work in my fierce resistance to the idea that Giovanni Pisano is a Gothic sculptor.  He is so much fresher than that, and there is something  sound and true in the magic that weather has worked on the outdoor sculpture, which shows us the direction in which to push or read the indoor work to see the depths that lie there waiting to be coaxed forth by sympathetic, anachronistic eyes.

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Michael Ayrton thought the Siena figures the most philosophically ambitious and monumental in scale of all his work, a group of fourteen prophets and sibyls in dialogue and contention with one another, passionate, visionary drama of immense historical and psychological scope. The V & A’s chunk of the Hebrew prophet Haggai from that facade is a powerfully expressive piece in which discoveries made earlier in the project about how to convey intense meaning and precise impressions over distance were developed further, involving bold use of the drill to show agitation of the features, and especially the beard, which revealed the movements of the soul.

Along with these bold textural effects went the famous tensed and craning neck, which Moore was perhaps first to intuit was more than a means of projecting the head beyond the parapet on a façade, but a novel expression of a figure’s intellectual fire as well.  Pisano brought this discovery down from the higher reaches of buildings and we find it again in Ecclesia and a couple of her Virtues.

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And we even come upon a miniature equivalent of bold and sketchy textures for conveying expression from afar on the smaller scale of the relief, admittedly more tellingly present on the pulpit in Pistoia than in Pisa.

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Giovanni Pisano was a complex and fascinating character, revealed most nakedly in two features which were completely omitted when the V & A cast of his Pisa pulpit was made, long inscriptions which remain ambiguous and difficult to interpret to this day. The upper one, which appears just below the reliefs, is generally regarded as boastful. The second, longer and running at floor level, is seen by Pope-Hennessy as a complaint lodged against an envious world. Ayrton reads it very differently, as a despairing confession of failure by an artist who has fallen short of an unattainable goal. Did he end frustrated and defeated by the world, or tragically uncertain of his own genius?

 

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The two inscriptions are printed in full, in Latin and English translation, in Pope-Hennessy’s Italian Gothic Sculpture.  The translation of the second inscription in Ayrton’s Giovanni Pisano Sculptor, a rewarding collaboration with Henry Moore and an Italian photographer, does not come out in the same place and isn’t even spoken by the same imagined speaker. 

*One of the most surprising items in the Pisani literature is a 9-page analysis of the extra lion footprints on the lion’s pedestal, signs of a struggle, according to the authors.  Palozzi, L & Bergkvist, G, 2018, ‘A brief cross-disciplinary study of lion paw prints in Giovanni Pisano’s Pisa Pulpit (1302–10): On the seventh centenary of Giovanni Pisano’s death’, Source (notes on the History of Art), vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 215- 224. https://doi.org/10.1086/699963

Trying for the most ferocious illustration, I inadvertently chose the lioness.  My own inspection of these wonderful animals had not extended as far as the ground they stand on.  With understandable satisfaction, the authors of this article observe that they seem to be the first in its 700 years of existence to notice these features of the lion’s marble pedestal: two complete footprints, one facing in the lion’s direction of travel, the other backward, and various signs of the scuffle with the prey impressed in the soft soil, apt at recording such marks.  They analyse both the accuracy and the purposeful inaccuracy of this lion’s anatomy, and make a fascinating case for the significance of the two paw-prints in the history of art.  They see them as Giovanni’s way of releasing his lion from its limited role as a support for a pulpit by suggesting an existence for him outside the frozen posture over his victim.  The prints encourage us to imagine him moving as we do freely through the grove.  These easily overlooked traces of the activity of the lion, perhaps an afterthought of the sculptor’s, can be seen as one of his boldest subversions of the conventions of liturgical equipment, and a source of guilty enjoyment to those who happen to notice them.  Once again, Giovanni Pisano is moving toward freeing the artist and his work from subservience to a patron, the Church.

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Neither the makers nor the later keepers of the plaster cast seem to have noticed or taken care to preserve these paw-prints, which have evidently got further scuffed and filled in over time. Recent photographs of the indentations in the marble original in Pisa show another kind of defacement, which has smoothed whatever Pisano carved into a series of  blob-shaped hollows, in which it is remarkable that Palozzi and Bergkvist could recognise the lion’s prints.

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Fig. 3. Giovanni Pisano, lion hunting his prey, 1302–10 (top view with detail of paw prints below). Carrara marble; print A: 5 ⅛ in. (13 cm); print B: 4 . in. (12 cm). Pisa Cathedral. Photographs: Ivan Bianchini.  The detail shows the metacarpal pad (MC) and the pads of digits II–V of paw print A, and the metatarsal pad (MT) and the pads of digits III–V of paw print B.

Translation/ explanation of caption: Metacarpal = front paw, metatarsal = back paw.  The two prints almost touch at their back edges.  The left-hand, front-paw print faces inward toward the lion’s body, pointing upward toward 10 o’clock; the right-hand, rear paw points downward toward 4 o’clock.  The front paw is 5 inches wide; the rear paw 4 inches.  Unless the whole thing was a private joke, when new the prints must have been more detailed, and more recognisable.

It is a detail, and a small piece of the puzzle, but one more sign of Giovanni Pisano’s study of his subjects from life, centuries before this became commonplace.

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Elisabeth Frink and British sculpture of the 50s

 

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I’ve broken off reading Thomas McEvilley’s Sculpture in the Age of Doubt to write about British sculpture of the 1950s, acutely conscious how timebound those works look now. McEvilley’s book is twenty years old but seems timely to someone freshly drawn to figurative sculpture by Elisabeth Frink, Henry Moore and their contemporaries, who still seem haunted by the experience of war, whose work is perhaps rawer and more deeply undermined than that of McEvilley’s doubters of the 1970s and 80s. He writes about work by Iannis Kounellis, Marina Abramovic, Michael Tracy and two dozen others, which is sometimes only sculpture because it isn’t painting, or just because McEvilley wants to see Happenings and Performance Art as sculpture, which seems an unnerving extension of the territory to me, but might be a commonplace to more up-to-date observers of the current scene.

Has he thought out all that this extension implies? Probably, for he’s a philosopher, which is to say always looking to wider ramifications and perhaps losing sight of the visceral presence of the piece, this in spite of being extremely good at explaining complex works of art. So his preferred instances often involve the participation of the artist, who is cutting herself methodically and bleeding on her immediate surroundings, or incinerating a huge painting which has been carried to a watery location according to a special liturgy. These are works that leave little behind after the scene is washed clean by attendants or the weather, except photos, videos and written descriptions.

How dispiriting after such disruptions to turn to lumps of bronze which raise no doubts about whether they are sculpture or not, just questions about why they aren’t more carefully finished or more complete, which often show plainly that they started life as plaster, and which bear an obvious though mildly obscure relation to the human form. It worries me slightly that I am becoming newly interested in these works of art produced when I was a teenager, worries which really take off when I think of trying to interest anyone else.

The first Frink sculpture I ever saw, knowing it was hers, was an incongruous green Christ mounted high on the front of Liverpool cathedral. It didn’t fit and was too far away, much too high for its welcoming gesture to make any sense. My next Frink was also green but in a gallery, so it wasn’t the weather that had coloured the bronze this time. It showed an oldish man falling backwards, shielding his face with one arm, leaving both his feet sticking awkwardly up. He was on the floor, below eye level. I am not even sure whether he had landed already or was about to. I have seen him many times since, but am still not sure if he has landed. The effect of the figure depends on the feeling of something in the course of happening, and on the extreme vulnerability of the raised arm and flailing feet. He is still in the middle of the violence of his fall.

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It didn’t take me long to learn from a label a few feet away that he was the work of Elisabeth Frink, a name I associated with dull public sculpture, and that he was called Dying King, apparently inspired by a scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III, where the great villain dies in the midst of battle, surrounded by his enemies. A bad man at his moment of greatest weakness—but it isn’t certain that this notion enters into our feelings about this sculpture.

What matters more is the rough hewn finish of the work. His shielding arm is a flat slab, like the outline of a form. His torso is eaten away by a natural process like decay, which isn’t decay of course, but a roughness and perforation that the sculptor has allowed to remain, rather than directly causing by a purposeful movement of her hand. The double nature of the material—so we need constantly to remind ourselves that these forms weren’t always metal, but something more malleable, even a runny almost-liquid for brief periods at least—is an endlessly involving feature of any bronze that lets its past as clay or plaster or even wood–Frink sticks on wooden slats to stiffen figures’ legs and doesn’t bother to hide them–show.

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So the shrunken Richard is a tragic figure, participating in the instability of the world and of its various physical components, instability that cooperates with whatever it is in him that brings him down. He is part of a larger natural process and encapsulates more than one moment in the history of matter.

At this point along comes a little display of British sculpture of the 1950s in the big hall at the centre of the old Tate, spaces designed by the most retardaire of American classicists, John Russell Pope, an embarrassing favourite of mine. The first piece I notice is a fragment, a figure without head, arms or feet lying on its side. Its back is the most eaten away part, which is what I come to first. Again, as before, I am enraptured by the way the form is both there and not there, threatening to lose its shape from all the gouging, and intrigued also by the way the legs are broken off, as by a violent rending. The genitals telling you the figure’s sex are indistinct but big enough that you won’t miss them: Frink usually makes sure of that, for this is Frink of course, and called simply Torso.

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DSC06230torso.jpgNext to it is another fallen figure who raises a little shield as he falls. His legs are pitifully shrunken, his torso misshapen like a rock which won’t bend itself completely to the human form. His head is more rudimentary than other Frinks, a stalk, an eye, a flat disk. I’m trying to take in the unmanageable variety of aspects I find in these forms, the great advantage of sculpture, that it can be a dozen different works in succession, depending on where you’re standing, or not standing but circling.

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It’s a long time after, when reading about another piece by a sculptor new to me, that I find the label for the Falling Warrior, for that is his name, and it is important to the sculptor that this is not a corpse stretched on the ground but someone who is still alive.

The sculptor is not Elisabeth Frink, though, but Henry Moore. How could I have made that mistake? in which there’s a lesson, that you tend to see what you’ve come to see. I look at this warrior again and see something different, cooler and more composed, a less immediate rendering of violence. Now I view the two figures, Dying King and Falling Warrior as opposites, several rooms apart, but wonderfully comparable, versions of the same idea seen so differently by two sculptors who enter deeply into their subject and make something unforeseen that grips you too. And I don’t know which to prefer, ‘inflections or innuendoes, the blackbird whistling, or just after.’*

 

Opening image:  In The Infield Was Patty Peccavi by Edward and Nancy Kienholz; metal, resin, cloth, wood, glass, paper, photomechanical reproduction, electric lights, stuffed bird and paint, 1981, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington

 

*Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
i
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   
ii
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   
iii
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   
iv
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   
v
I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   
vi
Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   
vii
O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   
viii
I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   
ix
When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   
x
At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   
xi
He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   
xii
The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   
xiii
It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.
                                                              Wallace Stevens

 

Oceania—art of the Pacific islands

 

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A moment of vertigo as you realise that by allotting a whole wall to a map of these scattered islands, you’ve drawn attention to the vast expanses of empty space between them.  Once you’ve left the land masses at either end of 6000 miles of ocean behind, there’s almost nothing there. It is the most dispersed series of human habitations on earth, given a flimsy coherence by the comforting (comforting and embarrassing) 18c names, reminders of European monarchs, like Caroline or Mariana, or far away and inappropriate places, like the Hebrides (now Vanuatu), Britain or Ireland (with New tacked on in front) and quaintest of all, Easter Island (now Rapa Nui) after the purely accidental day of European landfall.

The adventure properly begins with the ocean, represented in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy by a huge, nearly featureless blue hanging, crinkled like a calm sea and cascading toward the viewer. This was followed by a vast space where three slender canoes were suspended in the dimness. The largest was never meant to touch the water, a soul-canoe, already full of crouching wooden passengers–fierce birds, quiet turtles and human figures knotted together at both ends, where they hung out over imaginary sea-water.

DSC04791 copy.jpgAround them were grouped embellishments of canoes: splashboards inscribed with wave patterns that turn into birds biting each other, or a menacing crocodile prow with a demonic face on a canvas shield looming over it (see opening image). There were also three navigation charts like a cross between maps and abstract art, made of sticks (the main stems of coconut-palm fronds) lashed together into lattices dotted with tiny shells tied on in asymmetrical sequences. It’s the asymmetry and minimal means that make them feel like abstract art, and the diagrammatic arrangements of lines and dots that recall maps.

Western observers cannot help trying to match up the pattern of shells with islands on a map (a German attempt illustrated in the catalogue), an effort that can only ever succeed in part, because ‘lines’ on these ‘charts’ represent ocean-swells not distances, a subject long studied by island navigators, and classified into four types according to various resistances like undersea ridges, island shapes and prevailing winds. The charts aren’t taken along on voyages (hence their picture-like scale) but studied ahead of time and used in teaching. They are only the tips of icebergs of esoteric knowledge which have drawn occasional Western sailors to devote years to fathoming them.

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The precarious situation of islands which barely stick out above the sea often finds an echo in the islanders’ art, in headdresses formed of thousands of tiny feathers loosely mounted on flimsy cane frames, forming gigantic quivering auras 7 feet across over the dancer’s head. These rarely survive and are meant to be thrown away after a single performance, like those much solider island products, the malangan carvings made for funerals, depicting big fish entangled in little fish and threading their un-fishlike tusks among the fins. Their painted gaudiness seems almost another sign of a short life, of going out ablaze. Malangans turn up surprisingly often in museum collections, apparently because their makers think that selling them to the anthropologists is just another kind of destruction.

DSC04682 copy.jpgFlimsiness, undependable materials and the prospect of a short life can also lead to delightfully casual effects, as they do in barkcloth masks stretched on light bamboo frames which are hard to control precisely. The resulting wobbliness of forms can look like beings who are changing shape before your eyes, as in the lopsided duck or bird above, who seems to make space for a large spider living on his forehead at the centre of a web that covers the bird’s face. Its enormous eyes are not used for looking at the everyday world but at something further off. The wearer can see only through the bird’s beak, which must give everyone, dancer and spectator alike, a dislocated idea of where reality will be found.

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Under the sea’s influence Oceanic art, like Shakespeare’s late plays, is possessed by the idea of transformation, of things turning into other things, as in a carved board of uncertain purpose that starts with a large moon-like face at the top and then becomes a trellis of small faces melting into others, and then larger, more indistinct ones like Rorschach blots, with mirror-selves upside-down below. The overall effect is not unlike the mazes of Northern interlace, and all the piercing makes every perception insubstantial.

Next to this screen happened to be another mythical transformation, in which a long-tailed bird dug its talons into the scalp of a man it intended to carry aloft or devour and subsume on the spot. Already its claws were turning into human hair combed into parallel ridges. The leaning form of this roof finial foreshadowed the gentle motion of the bird’s flight and its acceptance of the composite creature it had become.

DSC04670 copy.jpgTattoos, and especially Maori face-tattoos, are indisputably an art-form, but difficult to include in an exhibition consisting of objects anchored in one place. There’s a remarkable drawing made in England in 1818 by a Maori artist suffering climate and culture shock. He depicts his brother’s face-tattoo as a single exploded view which flattens out the parts of the design that would disappear around the corners on the cheeks or over the top of the forehead. He makes it easier to grasp how this process consumes a part of the body and transforms it into a work of art, or rather how the body and the design are fused into a new being and a new work, a deeper idea of what writing lines on the body might achieve than most tattooists dream of.

DSC04985 copy.jpgIn 1896 a museum director in New Zealand solved the problem of how to display tattoos in a gallery that conveyed their vividness and power. He commissioned a sculpture from a noted Maori artist that would give him a three-dimensional rendering of tattoos. The resulting work looks as if it is carved from a single piece of dark wood left largely uncoloured to represent with defiant strength the darkness of native New Zealand skin. It shows three fully rounded heads emerging from a flat background deeply carved with traditional patterns, stained red and including two fierce birds with mother of pearl eyes. The heads are arranged in rows, two men at the top, a woman at the bottom. The men stare straight ahead, sightlessly; the woman looks down but her eyes are closed. You can study the tattoos as the director intended, but the expressions of the three and their asymmetries are unnerving.

Tattooing is not universal across the islands. One of the most rewarding aspects of studying all these tiny self-contained cultures is finding out how un-homogenous they are. New Guinea alone, the largest land mass in Oceania, contains or contained over a thousand languages and a dizzying variety of forms. In the middle Sepik region on the north coast appeared one of the most surprising simulacra of a tattooed face, sitting atop a special stool which commemorated a famous orator. It wasn’t a stool for sitting on, but a kind of effigy for contemplating the departed, which envisages him expressing his power with circular designs that start from the eyes and spread hypnotically over the whole face, which takes on a new concave form to accommodate them. Are these lines the spreading ripples of the orator’s voice, a visual analogue for sound waves?

DSC04701 copy.jpgThere is often a strong impulse in Oceanic art to dissolve solid bodies and obliterate the distinctness of forms. One of the most perplexing works shows a human body become almost two dimensional, a graphic squiggle of concentric curvelets enclosing an essence receding toward the status of a dot. In a world without writing there is no letter C, but in a world with drawing there is certainly this empty but enclosing form of a shallow curve with more copies of itself within.

DSC04849 copy.jpgIn the same company belongs the astonishingly featureless figure from Nukuoro in the Carolines whose head is a spinning top like one of Oscar Schlemmer’s, spherical at the back, narrowed to the point of a cone at the front, its chin. I imagine that I see on this ‘face’ the most delicate concentric tattoos and even almond-shaped openings in the pattern for the eyes. From Tahiti comes another way of blanking out the person with strong shapes and textures, ones which do not belong to personhood, large flat pearly shells instead of face, hands and breasts; stiff rectangles of alien substances covering the rest of the body. Appropriately this is a costume for the chief mourner at a funeral, someone who cuts off from all connection while the ordeal lasts.

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How is the deity A’a from remote Rurutu recognisable as a person at all? He has a head, sort of, and a body, but has been so colonised by parasites which he exudes like beads of sweat that he himself is obliterated. I had known him a long time before I’d been anywhere near the British Museum or had any idea what he looked like, except what I could glean from William Empson’s poem. Apparently he has functioned as a totem for many unbelievers who have little or no other contact with Oceanic art. He exercised his sway on the missionaries who brought him back to England instead of incinerating him, as had been their custom with the other idols which local people submitted to them to confirm their trust in the new creed, Christianity. The anthropologist Edmund Leach thought A’a’s visual power lay in his resemblance to an erect penis, an emblem of fertility, sweating lots of copies of himself which don’t resemble him exactly, but suggest increase, rather alarmingly.

He appeared in Roland Penrose’s exhibition of 1948-9, 40,000 years of modern art, after which the curator had a cast made. Seeing him in the Penrose studio, Picasso wanted one too, as did Henry Moore. Occasional visitors from Rurutu have come to see A’a in the British Museum, and a copy of him finally made it back to his birthplace and sits beside sports trophies in the mayor’s office. Recent scientific conclusions that he is made of sandalwood were debated by the island elders, who reaffirmed their adherence to the traditional belief that the material is pua wood, a species of tree noted for its sweet-smelling flowers.

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Homage To The British Museum

 There is a supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.

Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.

 

William Empson

 

In the exhibition A’a was shown with his back removed and his internal cavity exposed. I came at him from behind and received a tremendous shock. I did not know that he was hollow.