Moai tangata, Easter Island
Easter Island, Polynesia, 1860-1880
Wood, obsidian, shell, black pigment
Height : 44 cm
Provenance : Paul Cassirer, Edinburgh
Ernst Ascher, Paris (acquired from the above circa 1920)
George F. Keller collection (inv. G.F.K. 334)
Paolo Morigi, Milano
Sotheby’s, Paris, Collection Paolo Morigi, 6 Dec 2005, lot 7
Exhibition : Terra dei Moai, Palazzo Reale, Milano, March 7- 28 May 1995
Publication : Orefici, Terra dei Moai, Palazzo Reale, Milano, 1995, 243 n° 128
Paul Cassirer (1871-1926) was a German art dealer and editor who played a significant role in the promotion of the work of artists of the Berlin Secession and of French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, in particular that of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. He was also one of the early sponsor of primitive art in the Avant-Garde cercles in Europe, as attested by the presence of this Easter Island figure in his collection at the turn of the twentieth century.
Little is known about the meaning and use of wooden figures such as the present example. The shaved head and the thick eyebrows refer to masculine features but more generally to persons of high rank, of which the elongated ears are another characteristic. The plump stomach is more typical of the moai tangata - representation of a youngster - but it could also describe a pregnant woman. Here, the absence of genitals suggests clearly an hermaphroditic figure. The incorporation of male elements into the figure may indicate that the female deities or ancestors they likely represented were perceived as the equals of their male counterparts. The Rapanui cosmogony is composed by a wide pantheon of mythological figures, resulting in a great diversity of carvings. Kept preciously inside the Pascuan households, these ancestors sculptures were venerated in small domestic cults and various magical practices.
A comparable figure is held in the Museu de Cultures del Món in Barcelona.