Much more than giant stone heads

From micro to macro, a new exhibition captures the enigma of Easter Island art

The title, "Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island," expresses one well-known and one little-known element of Easter Island art.

Images of the island's colossal stone heads are not just well-known worldwide but iconic. Over the course of a millennium, these sentry-like sculptures were produced in isolation in one of the most remote inhabited places on earth. What's been unknown is the splendor of other art forms created on the tiny island, called by its inhabitants "the navel of the world."

The exhibition - at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through Aug. 4 - is the first American show of Easter Island art. It presents 50 objects, including a stone head weighing more than 1,200 pounds and iridescent feather headdresses that had been hidden in a drawer at the Smithsonian Institution since being collected in the 1880s.

Easter Island, named Rapa Nui by the Polynesians who settled it between 600 and 800 AD, is a speck of volcanic land measuring eight by four miles. It lies 1,400 miles west of the coast of South America and 900 miles northwest of its nearest island neighbor, Pitcairn Island.

The first Europeans encountered it on Easter morning in 1722, when Dutch explorers set foot on the treeless island and marveled at the huge stone heads, before which natives were prostrating themselves at sunrise. One sailor described in his log the stupendous idols "all made with skill: whereat we wondered not a little."

The wondering continued for centuries. Who made the giants - some more than 33 feet tall, with an added cylindrical topknot of another eight feet? How were they transported miles from their quarry? How were they erected on a six-foot-high platform? Answers ascribed the feat to everyone from seafaring Peruvians in reed boats (Thor Heyerdahl's idea in 1958) to aliens from distant galaxies.

In fact, ancestors of the current residents created the statues - around 900 of them - between 1100 and 1650 AD. They were transported on wooden sleds before the indigenous forests were depleted, each towed by 40 adults, and levered into place with wood poles and rocks.

The 1,200-pound stone head on display - staring from sightless eye sockets, its mouth set in a tight-lipped slit - captures the enigma of the island. It looks like the image of authority it was (an emblem of ancestors descended from the gods). Like Big Brother watching over commoners, its heavy brow glowers and its chin juts majestically. (The nose on an average-sized statue is the length of a grown man.)

All art on Easter Island embodied power - both secular and supernatural. Objects were repositories of spirit, and the most powerful individuals (chiefs and warriors) wore or held the carved wooden staffs, clubs, breastplates, and feather headdresses.

These artifacts were made with consummate skill. The headdresses, worn in dance ceremonies or combat, look like a corona of orange flames surrounding a chief's head. The carvings unite animal and human imagery.

Compositions made a virtue of necessity. Where wood was scarce, carvers adapted form to the twists of driftwood, producing a sinuous, lean birdman figure with its head tipped back, beak lifted.

The birdman figure is ubiquitous, representing religious and political power. Half-human, half-bird, the birdman was a major deity who served a pacifying purpose to avert warfare.

Each year, when migratory sooty terns returned to a rookery one-half mile offshore, chiefs appointed athletes to compete in a ritual transfer of power. They descended a 1,000-foot steep cliff, swam to the nesting ground, and - in what one could call an Easter egg hunt - searched for the first egg of the season. The chief of the champion returning with the prize ruled for a year.

Surrealist artists, like Max Ernst, in the 1920s and '30s were so taken with the birdman figure that they incorporated its imagery into their art. One can see why the sculptures exerted such influence: A rare barkcloth-covered figure is coiled in a crouch, its head painted in harlequin stripes of black, white, and reddish-brown, with vivid graphic impact.

The barkcloth effigies are the revelation of the show. Extremely fragile, only five exist, and four are on display. A fishman figure, as eccentric as a Dr. Seuss fantasy, combines fish and seal traits with a knobby head and wave-like bands of paint.

Isolation has its benefits. Devoid of external influence, the objects are like nothing produced elsewhere.

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