Statues, masks and decorative objects from Papua New Guinea. Offered in Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas on 2 December 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

How sculptures from New Ireland influenced western art

Since the early 1900s, sculptures from the Southern Pacific islands have had a profound effect on the work of artists such as Henry Moore and the Surrealists

Statues, masks and decorative objects from Papua New Guinea included in the Arts d'Afrique, d'Océanie et des Amériques auction at Christie’s Paris on 2 December offer the opportunity to consider how these works influenced European artists of the 20th century.

Henry Moore (1898-1986), Working Model for Upright International and External Forms, 1951. Galerie dart de lOntario, Toronto
Henry Moore (1898-1986), Working Model for Upright International and External Forms, 1951. Galerie d'art de l'Ontario, Toronto

Sculptures from the island of New Ireland particularly fascinated Henry Moore. Ceremonial malagan carvings played an essential role in the genesis and evolution of his sculptural work from 1930 to 1939 and beyond.

Moore began studying New Ireland sculptures in the years 1922-24 — sketches from this time show the influence of the carvings held at the British Museum. He returned to them during the 1930s, particularly in 1935-36, when he made drawings that would be the basis for his 1951 work Upright Internal/External Form: Flower.

His interest can also be explained by his closeness to those in Surrealist circles. New Ireland sculptures became an almost ubiquitous influence on members of the movement.

Statue Malangan, New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea. Height 39 in (99 cm). Estimate €150,000-200,000. Offered in Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas on 2 December 2021 at Christie’s in Paris
Statue Malangan, New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea. Height: 39 in (99 cm). Estimate: €150,000-200,000. Offered in Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas on 2 December 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

In the Surrealist Map of the World, an unattributed illustration that was published in the Belgian magazine Variétés in 1929, Papua New Guinea, New Ireland and the other islands of the Bismarck Archipelago are depicted as being of greater size than Africa and Europe. The movement’s leader, André Breton, and prominent member Paul Éluard both owned malagan carvings. Later, Breton exchanged a painting by Giorgio de Chirico for an uli figure — a statue used in funerary and fertility rites in central New Ireland.

Other Surrealist artists, such as Sir Roland Penrose and Adolf Hoffmeister, acquired similar sculptures. Hoffmeister was a leading member of the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil, which was founded in the early 1920s and developed strong ties with the Dada and French Surrealist movements. He had a close relationship with Breton and bought an uli sculpture from him in 1937. He also bought malagan figures from other members of the Czech avant-garde, such as the painter Emil Filla [Lot 40].

Uli Statue, Mandak Area, New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea. Height 55 in (140 cm). Estimate €1,500,000-2,000,000. Offered in Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas on 2 December 2021 at Christie’s in Paris
Uli Statue, Mandak Area, New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea. Height: 55 in (140 cm). Estimate: €1,500,000-2,000,000. Offered in Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas on 2 December 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

In Germany, Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein were equally captivated by sculptures from New Ireland. Nolde had a malagan and an uli carving in his collection and would later use them as motifs in his paintings. At a 1921 exhibition at the Museum Folkwang in Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Expressionist paintings were displayed alongside New Ireland sculptures from the collection of renowned dealer Alfred Flechtheim.

Flechtheim was one of the key promoters of Cubism and the French avant-garde in Germany but was also fascinated by non-European art. In his Berlin apartment, sculptures from New Ireland were placed alongside his most important acquisitions, including paintings by Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger. An exhibition he organised at his Berlin gallery in 1926, entitled Südsee-Plastiken, was the first to be devoted to the art of Papua New Guinea.

Jeff Koons, Uli, 2014-2020. Anderson Cooper, New York. © Jeff Koons, photo Tom Powel Imaging
Jeff Koons, Uli, 2014-2020. Anderson Cooper, New York. © Jeff Koons, photo: Tom Powel Imaging

The fascination with New Ireland sculpture continued throughout the 20th century, both within and beyond Surrealist circles, as shown by the magnificent collection assembled by the Surrealist poet Joyce Mansour under the guidance of Breton. More recently, Jeff Koons melted the actor and activist Sean Penn’s collection of guns to create his sculpture Uli (2014-20), which mimics the form of a New Ireland statue.