Magazine article The Spectator

Treasures of the South Seas

Magazine article The Spectator

Treasures of the South Seas

Article excerpt

Pacific Encounters: Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860 Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, until 13 August

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 warcanoes, 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. …

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