John Mcewen

Treasures of the South Seas

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The enlarged, updated and now undivided Sainsbury Centre has reopened with the most comprehensive selection of Polynesian art ever assembled; and yet, shamefully, it has received not a single review.

It would be a waste of space to wonder why, better to state that the stunning Pacific Encounters, curated by Dr Steven Hooper of the University of East Anglia, utterly confounds the supposition that Oceanic art is largely a matter of shell and feather knick-knacks. These superlative objects from British collections (testimony to those pioneers of the scientific Enlightenment who went exploring with Captain Cook), three-quarters of them resurrected from the limbo of museum stores, prove that Polynesian (Greek for ‘many islands’) sculpture and workmanship can stand any comparison.

Most visitors will surely experience a similar astonishment to that of the naturalist George Forster on Cook’s second voyage: ‘All our former ideas of the power and affluence of this island [Tahiti] were so greatly surpassed by this magnificent scene, that we were perfectly left in admiration. We counted no less than one hundred and fifty-nine great double war-canoes, from fifty to ninety feet long betwixt stem and stern.’

‘Canoes’ is inadequate to describe these ocean-going sailing ships, comparable in length to Cook’s own vessels, which were able to carry in excess of 100 people plus supplies, and probably succeeded in travelling to and from South America. An oil painting by the expedition’s artist, William Hodges, records the splendid spectacle; and an intricate wooden fragment of a prow shows just how delicately ornate these magnificent warships were.

Polynesia covers the vast oceanic triangle of the ‘South Seas’, as it was formerly called, between Hawaii in the north to Easter Island in the east and New Zealand in the southwest. In the excellent catalogue, subtitled Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760–1860, Hooper categorises the objects by location, but in the show he presents them thematically: Sea, Marae/Temple, Land, Collecting, Making Divine.

Subtlety and power are often combined in a single piece and never more surprisingly than in the wooden standing casket figure, bronze casts of which were once owned by Picasso and Henry Moore. Probably a reliquary, this unique piece has 30 miniature figures distributed over its surface. Nearby is the biggest and most ferocious sculpture on view, a large standing male figure from Hawaii. Dates indicate collection, so many objects may pre-date the 18th century when they were first brought back and collated, often as fair exchanges. But in the case of the 9ft standing figure, the early-19th-century date probably does roughly coincide with its origin, as its size is due to the metal tools introduced by Europeans. It is not the least remarkable aspect of most of these objects that they were carved with tools of stone, shell and bone.

Perhaps because these Polynesian craftsmen lived by and on the sea, they seem peculiarly attuned to the natural and elemental, to inherent powers and subtleties. To make a bend they trained growing roots and branches so that the driven force was contained in the eventually detached object. For them the sharpness of a tooth or a chiselled bone was invested with animate power, be it of a shark or the distributed bones of Captain Cook, some of which may even have served as precious fish-hooks. Everything is brought to perfection. A stone-bladed adze can be an object of surmounting beauty, not least the exquisite plaiting of the coir or cocoa-nut string by which the head is tied to the shaft, itself often a miracle of carved decoration. Bowls, clubs, spears, paddles, drums, fishing tackle (including refracting spinning lures) are equally refined.

The same applies to boldly designed feather cloaks, ivory pendants, combs, tree-bark cloth — laboriously beaten and teased until pliant as any textile — and wooden head-rests, apparently making as comfortable a pillow as ‘the softest down’. There are the distinctively geometric Tongan figure sculptures with arms like wings, particularly pleasing to minimalist modern taste; and feathered head, with a face exactly like the old gaffers’ in The Muppets. And then there is a club/headrest, inlaid with ivory stars and crescent moons — all dreams of the fabled South Seas in a single, unique tour de force.

The British Museum has a Polynesian show opening in the autumn, but it will be much smaller and 70 of its 80 exhibits are included in Pacific Encounters. Catch the first train to Norwich while there’s time.