Vincent Price as Art Collector

Vincent Price visiting the Indiana University Art Museum (now Eskenazi Museum of Art) with former museum director Thomas T. Solley and former curator of education Virginia Jackson.

By Nan Brewer, the Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University

Whenever I showed works from the Vincent Price collection to classes, I began by asking the students if they were familiar with his name. Some recalled that he was an actor; others knew that he appeared in horror flicks. When I mentioned that he played the inventor who dies at the beginning of the movie Edward Scissorhands (1990) or that he provided the monologue in Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller (1982) they lit up. Few, however, had any idea of Price’s background in the visual arts or interest in collecting.

Vincent Price

Born in 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri, to a wealthy and distinguished family, Price studied art history at Yale University and the University of London. In England, he switched his attention from art to acting. Nonetheless, he never lost his love of art and regularly purchased original artworks as his time and resources allowed. Price often lectured and wrote about art, including the book I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography (1959), and served as an art consultant, most notably for the Sears, Roebuck, & Company. The first exhibition and sale of the “Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” took place in 1962 at a Sears store in Denver, Colorado, before being expanded nationwide. Most of the items—available for $10 to $3,000 and payable in $5 installments—attracted entry-level collectors. Although Price never actually owned the art, he selected the pieces to be sold and even commissioned contemporary artists, like Salvador Dali, to create works specifically for the collection. The program claims to have sold more than 50,000 pieces of original fine art by the time it ended in 1971. Price’s daughter, Victoria, said in her 1999 biography of her father that he saw the Sears collaboration as an “opportunity to put his populist beliefs into practice, to bring art to the American public.”

Vincent Price examines a sculpture by artist David Smith, on a tour of the Indiana University Art Museum (now Eskenazi Museum of Art), with former museum director Thomas T. Solley and former curator of education Victoria Jackson. Image courtesy of Indiana University Archives.

When Price came to lecture at Indiana University in 1984 (his fourth time in Bloomington), the museum’s Director Emeritus (then curator), Heidi Gealt, knew of his art education and passion for collecting. She asked if he would be willing to lend a portion of his personal collection for students in an art history graduate seminar to use as the source material for technical examination and in-depth research. Their work would result in an exhibition with an accompanying scholarly catalogue. This was the fourth such partnership that the museum had undertaken with the art history department in the School of Fine Arts (now School of Art, Architecture + Design). Mr. Price kindly agreed to do so and sent 53 drawings ranging in date from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.

I’ve always thought of this act as not only benevolent—in that it greatly benefited young scholars in their hands-on education—but also brave. Price opened up his treasures to intense scrutiny by the students, their professors, and the outside experts they consulted. In the field of Old Master drawings, authorship is often based on connoisseurship. When Price purchased a work, he generally assumed that the attribution to a particular artist was correct. Would those assignments withstand close inquiry? As it turns out, some of the works were by lesser-known artists or their respective schools, while others proved to be more important than was originally thought. What really interested Mr. Price was not increasing their monetary value, but learning more about the artworks that had attracted his eye and imagination.

The sampling of his collection that arrived at IU reflected Price’s eclectic taste. There were works in all media, ranging from delicate pen-and-ink drawings to graphite preparatory sketches. Although a few of the pieces, including a Study of Skulls by Giovanni Battista Franco, suggested a macabre (or vanitas) theme, there were also works of touching beauty, serenity, and piety. Among the artists best known by today’s audiences were Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Odilon Redon, Camille Pissarro, Jean François Millet, and Paul Gauguin.

The resulting exhibition, Master Drawings from the Vincent Price Collection, was held at the Indiana University Art Museum (now Eskenazi Museum of Art) from January 21 to May 3, 1987. Eleven students authored the catalogue entries and thematic essays on the media, history, and collecting of drawings. A museum graduate assistant at the time, I wrote on the tradition of copying and on two of the drawings, one by Pieter van Lisebetten and the other by Bartolomeo Passarotti, the latter of which ended up on the exhibition poster and book cover. It proved a truly formative experience that showed me the rigors and excitement of original primary research and inspired me to become a curator of works on paper. As Gealt and the late Bruce Cole wrote in their preface, “We are convinced that close and continuous study of works of art is the foundation upon which all art historical scholarship should be based.” I can attest that it was a thrill to uncover the source material used for a particular drawing, learn how it related to the artist’s oeuvre, and about its potential use—a lot like being a forensic drawing detective!

Although Price was scheduled to attend the exhibition’s opening, he had to cancel due to his mother’s death. Gealt continued to maintain contact with the actor until his own death in 1993. I still recall how excited the museum’s receptionist became whenever that distinctive voice called. In appreciation of the excellent work done by the students and the museum, Price donated two drawings in 1987. He later gave a third work to Gealt, which she gifted to the museum in his memory.

Here are those three works.

Giovanni Agostino Ratti (Italian, 1699–1775). Sketchbook, 1736. Pen and iron gall ink with gray ink wash over graphite indications on paper. Gift of Vincent Price, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 87.9.1

The most complex work in the Price collection to arrive for the student seminar was a rare multi-sheet, bound sketchbook by the Genoese artist Giovanni Agostino Ratti. In 1736—per a date on the cover sheet—Ratti drew preparatory designs for paintings in nine small pilgrimage chapels for the Church of Nostra Signora della Misericordia in the northern Italian port city of Savona. Since the paintings were commissioned for the bicentennial of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary in the town, her image figures prominently. In this sheet, the Madonna appears in the upper right, where she saves a ship by imploring a swordfish to fill a hole in the hull. Although the sketchbook seems to be incomplete, it gives interesting insight into the artist’s process and provides a valuable reference source for works now lost. Only three of the frescoes survive, but even these were overpainted by a restorer in 1835.

Nazarene or Pre-Raphaelite Artist. Woman by the Well, 19th century. Blue green gouache, graphite, and charcoal with some ink and white chalk highlights on paper. Gift of Vincent Price, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 87.9.2

When this piece arrived at the museum, it was attributed to the English painter William Dyce, but images and information sent to numerous experts around the world garnered mixed responses as to whether or not it was by his hand. Some suggested that it had similarities in style and theme to some British Pre-Raphaelite or German Nazarene painter, but no definitive matches were made. One even postured a French artist such as Leon Lhermitte. The subject matter, originally thought to be of a woman spinning, is probably a woman by a well, perhaps a segment of the biblical story from the Woman of Samaria. Even the drawing’s presentation raises questions. It appears to be a large preparatory drawing in a variety of media with gridded transfer lines; however, no corresponding mural or fresco has been found. Periodically, I re-examine this issue with the continued hope of unraveling this mystery.

Fortunato Duranti (Italy, 1787–1863). Arcadian Scene, after 1840. Pen and gray brown ink with black and brown ink washes on paper. Gift in memory of Vincent Price, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 93.11

This unusual drawing by a relatively unknown Italian artist reflects Price’s willingness to buy interesting material that was out of the mainstream. Duranti was born in Montefortino, a small town in the Italian Marches. Although he eventually went to study in Rome, he never achieved widespread success. Part of the reason for this failure may have been his mixture of Arcadian subjects based in a neoclassical tradition with an expressive romantic style. This image with its smudge-like shading is distinctive and personal in a surprisingly modern way. Relatively few American museums have any examples of Duranti’s unique work.

In March, Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria, will visit the IU campus as part of a special program at IU Cinema. Victoria will give a special lecture about her father’s life and sign copies of her book Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. IU Cinema will also be screening two of Vincent Price’s most celebrated films, The Masque of the Red Death and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Learn more and purchase tickets at the IU Cinema website.

Learn more about the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art

 

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New Acquisitions of Works by Female Artists

We continue to be very active while our museum building is undergoing renovation. This includes acquiring new works for our permanent collection. We have recently added a number of interesting pieces by some phenomenal women artists. Here are a few of our recent acquisitions.

 

Resurrection Story with Patrons by Kara Walker

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Kara Walker (American, b. 1969). Resurrection Story with Patrons, 2017. Etching with aquatint, sugar-lift, spit-bite, and drypoint on paper, frames (left and right): 42 x 32 in.; (center): 42 x 51 in. Museum purchase with funds from Paula W. Sunderman, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.81

This new triptych by Kara Walker reflects the complexities of her narratives and her use of the print medium. Walker emerged on the international art scene with paper silhouettes of the antebellum atrocities of slavery. Resurrection Story with Patrons continues to explore contemporary issues of race through references to the historical past. While a 2016 resident at the American Academy in Rome, Walker reflected on the police killings of young black men and social unrest back home. Drawing on iconography of Christian martyrdom from Western European artistic traditions and contemplating the challenges of erecting monuments and memorials, she created a resurrection story that she says alternates between captor and redeemer. In the central panel, a half-length nude black woman is pulled up by ropes with her back supported by a man and a baby. The standing figure on the right suggests an African chief with ceremonial staff, while the wooden boards recall the hull of a slave ship or the cross. The ghostlike figures in the wings—reminiscent of wealthy patrons in medieval and Renaissance altarpieces— are actually black house servants. The great colossus serves as a tribute to the souls of slaves lost in the Middle Passage and to the power of collective memory.

 

Seated Figure with Hands in Head by Elizabeth Catlett

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Elizabeth Catlett (American, active in Mexico, 1915-2012). Seated Figure with Hands in Head, 1982. Bronze. Museum purchase with funds from Donald, Nicole, and Dexter Griffin; Janice and Mary Wiggins; and the Estate of Herman B Wells via the Joseph Granville and Anna Bernice Wells Memorial Fund, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.62

With the acquisition of this sculpture, the Eskenazi Museum of Art adds a work by one of the most significant American artists of the twentieth century to its collection. Born in Washington, DC, Elizabeth Catlett studied at Howard University and at the University of Iowa with renowned regionalist painter Grant Wood, who encouraged her to develop her talents as a sculptor. Frustrated by the limited opportunities available for African Americans in the United States, Catlett moved to Mexico City in 1946, and became a Mexican citizen in 1962. The politically and socially engaged prints she produced at Mexico City’s Taller de Gráfica Popular have become icons of twentieth-century art, and they reflect her activism in support of the civil rights movement in the United States and against human rights abuses in Latin America. Catlett’s sculptures often portray archetypal African or African American women, either alone or with children. The intimately sized sculpture now in the museum’s collection is posed in a manner that recalls traditional Western depictions of melancholy (as in Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melancholia), but the solidity of the figure’s limbs suggests strength, and her mask-like face hints at resolve while also referencing African art.

Falcon by Kiki Smith

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Kiki Smith (American, born Germany, 1954). Falcon, 2001. Aquatint and etching on paper. Museum purchase with funds from the Elisabeth P. Myers Art Acquisition Endowment,
Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2016.122

Although recognized as a sculptor and installation artist, Kiki Smith is also known as a printmaker, particularly for her realistic images based on dead animals. The museum’s collection already included several smaller works by Smith, but Falcon (2001) is our first major print by the artist. For this large-scale image, Smith used an intaglio technique to carefully render the bird’s feathers and to create a haunting, macabre effect through the inclusion of a solid black hood over the bird’s head and flowing tendrils.

If you enjoy these works you can explore more art from our collection at our Highlights from the Collection website. You can also sign up for our monthly email newsletter or bi-annual museum magazine at our website: artmuseum.indiana.edu

 

Heidi Davis-Soylu Named New Director of Education at the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art

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Heidi Davis-Soylu. Image courtesy of Newfields

The Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University is proud to announce Dr. Heidi Davis-Soylu as its new Lucienne M. Glaubinger Director of Education. Davis-Soylu will begin at the museum on January 11. Most recently, Davis-Soylu was Director of Academic Engagement and Learning Research at Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art). At Newfields she led the academic engagement department, including the St. Mary’s Child Center at the IMA preschool, the Art and Nature Homeschool Cottage (K-middle school), pre-K-12 school programs, docent program, adult and youth studio programs, studio classrooms, summer camps, educator professional development, and student and educator tours. A number of these programs began under Davis-Soylu’s direction, including the launch of the country’s first encyclopedic art museum preschool with a focus on serving children in poverty, and the Art and Nature Homeschool Cottage.

As the new Director of Education, Davis-Soylu will lead the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s education programs at an exciting time in the organization’s history, as it further solidifies its place as one of the preeminent teaching museums in the United States. The museum’s current renovation plans include a new Center for Education, which Davis-Soylu will help envision. And a recently launched school outreach initiative that organized visits by museum docents to every second grade classroom in Monroe County in 2017 will expand in 2018 under her direction.

Davis-Soylu is no stranger to Indiana University. She received both her Master’s and PhD in art education from IU Bloomington, and her bachelor’s in elementary education from IU Southeast. During her time as a graduate student at IU she served as an associate instructor and regularly embedded the Eskenazi Museum of Art into her courses in art education. In 2017, she received the Maris M. and Mary Higgins Proffitt Outstanding Dissertation Fellowship, which is awarded to one candidate each year at the IU School of Education.

“As a university art museum, education is central to what we do at the Eskenazi Museum of Art. We are very excited to welcome someone with Heidi’s expertise and background to lead our education department. This is an important time as we reimagine our museum, and plan for the reopening of our newly renovated building. It is a great pleasure to welcome Heidi to our team,” said David Brenneman, the Wilma E. Kelley Director of the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art.

You can follow news about the museum’s renovation and activities during this exciting period of change at artmuseum.indiana.edu

Caring for Works on Paper

Janelle Beasley, Works on Paper Preparator, Eskenazi Museum of Art

In pursuit of a new level of care for the works-on-paper collection at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, I recently attended an introductory course in paper conservation at the International Preservation Studies Center (IPSC). Located in the small town of Mount Carroll, Illinois, the IPSC offers more than 75 courses in collections care and historic preservation. Since its founding in 1980, the center has become a wonderful resource for museum professionals, archivists, librarians, and all those tasked with preserving historical artifacts.

Janelle Beasley (left) removing adhesive residue from a map with a crepe eraser

As the works-on-paper preparator at the EMA, my primary duty is to mat and frame the collection of prints, drawings, and photographs for exhibition and storage. Museum standards include using archival materials, framing the works with UV-filter glazing, and limiting their exposure to light. Given that paper degrades over time (to varying degrees depending on its quality), these preventative measures are crucial to prolonging the life of an object.

A damaged object, however, may require intervention by a conservator to improve its condition. In addition to internal degradation, paper can suffer from external sources such as poor storage conditions, exposure to light or humidity, acid migration, wear and tear, pollutants, and pest infestation. The instructors of “Care of Paper Artifacts,” Susan Russick and Tonia Grafakos of Northwestern University Libraries, provided a framework for understanding these issues as well as basic conservation treatments, including mending with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste, surface cleaning, humidification and flattening, adhesive removal, and deacidification.

A building on the International Preservation Studies Center campus

One benefit of attending the IPSC is getting to know other collections professionals. Our class of ten included representatives from a wide variety of institutions, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the Walt Disney Archives. All of us shared the common goal of providing care to the paper artifacts in our collections. Now that I am back in Bloomington and the museum is closed for renovations, I am focusing on re-housing works, updating data, and making minor repairs for a portion of the collection. Working with the EMA’s collection of 22,000 works on paper (and counting), it is safe to say there will always be a need for care.

Please visit the IPSC website at www.preservationcenter.org to learn more.

Susan Russick demonstrates the toning of Japanese tissue using acrylic paints.

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

 

Celebrating the Centenary of Rodin’s Death

Image: Edward Steichen (American, 1879–1973). Rodin from Camera Work (vol. 2), 1903. Photogravure on paper. Eskenazi Museum of Art, 78.31A

November 17, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917), one of modern art’s most famous sculptors. This portrait of the aging artist appeared in Alfred Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work. Stieglitz was an early proponent of modern art in America and he promoted Rodin’s work. He reproduced nine of Rodin’s drawings in Camera Work, vol. 34/35 (Eskenazi Museum of Art, 200.XIII.35.5–.13).

One of Stielgitz’s favorite photographers was Edward Steichen, who shared his interests in pushing the artistic possibilities of photography. In his early portraiture, Steichen embraced a Pictorialist aesthetic that featured the soft-focused veils of tone and idealized subjects promoted by Stieglitz. Steichen also sought to further the status of the medium through references to other fine arts. In this portrait, Steichen posed a pensive Rodin in silhouette against the gleaming white of the sculptor’s recently completed monument to the French novelist Victor Hugo. More than capturing a likeness, this image serves as a metaphor for the creative process—with the artist’s masterwork looking down angelically on its maker. The photogravure appears to be a cropped version in reverse of Steichen’s 1902 gum bichromate print, the latter of which was created by combining two negatives. The larger image, which was reproduced in Camera Work, no. 11, 1905 (Eskenazi Museum of Art 200.XIII.11.7) and a Special Steichen Supplement, 1906 (Eskenazi Museum of Art 200.XIII.15.10), also included and image of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker (Le Penseur) facing the artist. The journal reproduced two more traditional portraits of the famous artist: by Steichen in Camera Work, vol. 34/35, 1911 (Eskenazi Museum of Art 200.XIII.35.1), and by the British photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn in Camera Work, vol. 21, 1908 (Eskenazi Museum of Art 200.XIII.22.40), further suggesting Rodin’s importance to burgeoning modern artists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Image: Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917). Head of Baudelaire, 1898 (cast 1959). Bronze. Gift of Mrs. Julian Bobbs, Eskenazi Museum of Art, 62.1

The first work by Rodin to enter the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection was a portrait head of the great French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire (French, 1821–1867). Rodin never met Baudelaire, but his art was shaped by the former’s theories of modernity and subjectivity. In 1892, a group of writers commissioned Rodin to design a monument commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Baudelaire’s death. He gladly made a portrait sculpture for the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. Six years later, he reworked this image as an independent piece.

To make this portrait, Rodin studied the death mask of the poet and made life studies of a man said to bear a striking resemblance to Baudelaire. At the same time, he tried to conjure up the spirit of a Roman bust, allying the subject with the dignity and longevity of ancient writers. Finally, Rodin drew upon his own personal response to Baudelaire’s poetry to give expression to the artist’s viewpoint and to inject the eternal, spiritual quality that he—and Baudelaire—sought in art.

Rodin, whose sculptural talents are often considered equal to those of Michelangelo, was able to imbue simple compositions with psychological depth and intensely expressive feeling. Rodin was greatly influenced by Baudelaire’s 1857 poem The Flowers of Evil, which encouraged him to explore erotic themes, as seen in his sculpture of the goddess Iris.

Image: Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917). Seated Nude Holding Left Ankle (Femme assise de tenant le pied gauche), ca. 1906–07. Watercolor over graphite on paper. William Lowe Bryan Memorial Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, 66.31

The first and only drawing by Rodin to enter the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection was acquired in 1966. Albert Elsen—an expert on Rodin and professor of art history at IU (1958–68)—noted in a letter (April 8, 1966) to the donor, James S. Adams, “It is a superb drawing and there is no question as to its authenticity. Every week I am called upon to give an expertise on a Rodin drawing or sculpture, many of which are fakes. But this drawing is of the highest quality and unmistakably by Rodin.” He went on to say, “This new acquisition will give me many hours of enjoyment and a superb work of art to use in my courses.” Although not as well-known as his sculptures, Rodin’s drawings and watercolors—of which he produced more than 10,000—are regarded by some scholars as more experimental and spontaneous than his large, three-dimensional works. Although they rarely served a preparatory studies for his sculpture, Rodin said in 1910, “It’s very simple. My drawings are the key to my work.”

Image: Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917). Iris, Messenger of the Gods (Iris, messagère des dieux) (also known as Another Voice, called Iris), 1890/91 (cast 1960). Bronze. Gift of Marion and Rudolf Gottfried, Eskenazi Museum of Art, 2011.40

Although the Eskenazi Museum of Art had not acquired a new work by Rodin in forty-five years, the gift of a bronze in 2011 rectified that situation. Seeming to defy the laws of gravity as she balances on one foot, Iris has a muscular body suggesting that of a dancer in Rodin’s frankly erotic sculpture. Her weightlessness also refers to the ancient Greek goddess’s role as a messenger traveling between the worlds of gods and humans.

Nan Brewer, Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper, and Jenny McComas, Curator of European and American Art,
Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University.

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

Textile Artist Isabel Berglund Visits Bloomington

Isabel Berglund

This fall, the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University is partnering
with IU School of Art + Design, Lotus Education and Arts Foundation,
IU Textile Artist Association, and IU Arts and Humanities Council to
support an artist residency. Danish textile artist Isabel Berglund, known
for her large-scale knitting events and participatory art projects, comes
to Bloomington September 12–October 5, 2017. This residency offers the
artist the opportunity to immerse herself in the local cityscape and partner with the IU and Bloomington communities to create a social art project. The project, called Home Mask Relations—A Social Art Project, explores themes of togetherness, relationships, and home. Berglund will lead workshops at which participants will knit and crochet pieces representing the floor plans of their homes. She will then assemble the pieces into a finished installation. The project invites people to create together while celebrating diversity within our community.

During the last week of her residency, a sample of Berglund’s finished work will be on view at the 24th Lotus World Music and Arts Festival at the Lotus Arts Village, and at Lotus in the Park. Lotus in the Park (September 30, at Third Street Park) will feature both a workshop with Berglund, and a conversation with the artist hosted by David Brenneman, the Wilma E. Kelley Director of the Eskenazi Museum of Art. The installation will also be on view at the IU First Thursday Festival on October 5 from 5 to 8:00 p.m. on the Fine Arts Plaza near the art museum.

Work by Isabel Berglund

Free artist talks and workshops will be provided at multiple locations, including several opportunities during the 24th Lotus Festival. The

workshops are free and open to the public. Supplies will be provided.
Beginners are welcome.

Events with Isabel Berglund
(All events are free and open to the public)

Thursday, September 21, 6-9 p.m.: Community Knitting Workshop
IU Fine Arts Building, room 230

Monday, September 25, 1-4 p.m.: Community Knitting Workshop
Meadowood Retirement Community

Wednesday, September 27, 6-7 p.m.: Artist Lecture
IU Fine Arts Building, room 015

Friday, September 29, 6-9 p.m.: Workshop, Sample Art Installation, Interactive
Lotus Festival Arts Village, E. 6th St. between Walnut St. and Washington St.

Saturday, September 30, 12:15-1 p.m.: Conversation with the artist,
hosted by Eskenazi Museum of Art Wilma E. Kelley Director David Brenneman
Lotus in the Park, Third Street Park

Saturday, September 30, 2-5 p.m.: Workshop, Sample Art Installation, Interactive
Art Camp at Lotus in the Park, Third Street Park

Thursday, October 5, 5-7:30 p.m.: Workshop, Sample Art Installation, Interactive
IU First Thursday Festival, Showalter Fountain Arts Plaza

Click here to learn more about Isabel Berglund and the 2017 Lotus World Music and Arts Festival.

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

Copyright and Mourning: Funerary Art of New Ireland

The island of New Ireland, part of the contemporary nation of Papua New Guinea, is known for its remarkable and varied funerary art forms. The most famous of these is called Malangan, which is practiced by the peoples of northern New Ireland. These ceremonies free the living from obligations to the deceased and allow the spirit of the deceased to move on to the next life. The term Malangan refers both to the ceremony, performances, and feasts that are held to honor the deceased and the art objects that are created for them.

After a person’s death their matrilineal family line is responsible for sponsoring the Malangan celebrations, though other family members and friends can also contribute and honor the dead. These celebrations include both people from within the community and visitors and friends who have traveled to take part. As these celebrations include feasts, performances, and the ceremonial exchange of goods, they are often spread out over months and years. Given the great expense of such a celebration, it is not unusual for the Malangan to take place months to years after the death of an individual or for one celebration to be used to honor several people. Both receiving a Malangan celebration in one’s honor and sponsoring a celebration for another confers status within the community.

Malangan designs, motifs, and forms are often referred to as having “copyrights.” While this does not line up perfectly with the Western use of the term, it is a relatively good way to understand the rules of use connected with them. Only people who have the “rights” to them can use the designs, motifs, and forms, and these rights are owned by specific families as well as by people who have reached certain important stages in life (such as marriage or the birth of a child).

The peoples of southern New Ireland used chalk figures as a part of their memorial rituals. These figures, made by specialist artists in the center of the island, were created for the deceased’s spirit to enter and as a means of guiding that spirit to the afterlife. Once this purpose had been fulfilled the figure itself was destroyed.

There are two other major funerary art forms from New Ireland, which unlike Malangan are no longer practiced. In central New Ireland the Mandak peoples created memorial figures to embody the spirit of the deceased. These figures would commemorate the life of an individual man and were typically displayed as part of a ceremony for skull burial at the end of a yearlong funeral ritual for an important person.

 

Unknown Artist. New Ireland, Northwest area, Papua New Guinea. Memorial Carving in the Form of a Figure. Wood, pigment, fiber, sea snail opercula. Eskenazi Museum of Art 81.17

After the death of a loved one the family of the deceased commissions a sculptor or sculptors to create, over several months, elaborate memorial carvings known as Malangan. In some instances the head of a family may contribute a form or motif to a friend or community leader from another family.

Figures, such as this one, while varying greatly, typically represent an ancestor or mythical entity connected to the single life-giving force. The exact story or explanation of imagery used in a Malangan carving is only understood by the owner of the rights to that Malangan. Even other members of the community would not fully understand a Malangan they did not have the rights to use.

It is believed that during the public display of the figure the ancestor or mythical figure depicted dwells within the form. The final step in the creation of a Malangan figure is the placing of the eyes, which enliven the carving. Once the ceremony is over the figures are destroyed or sold to people outside of the community.

 

Unknown artist. New Ireland, Northwest area, Papua New Guinea. Mask, Tatanua. Wood, pigment, fiber, sea snail opercula. Eskenazi Museum of Art 63.15

In addition to the carvings utilized as part of the Malangan rituals, dances performed for the public were also extremely important. This mask was worn and danced by men and was created to convey manly beauty. The high crest represents a hairstyle worn by young men of the community during mourning. Additionally, the flaring nostrils and open mouth are common features for the form.

While the hairstyle shown is one worn by young men, the subject the mask depicts is not clearly agreed upon. Early reports suggest that the masks are representations of the dead, ancestors who have returned in order to participate in the Malangan. Many New Irelanders today reject this idea and instead believe the masks to be the representations of living people. It is unclear if this early report was mistaken or if people’s interpretation of the masks have changed over time.

These masks, which typically appear at the end of the Malangan rituals, are danced in pairs or groups. These dance performances are often given and paid for by a friend or by family members of the deceased. Unlike the carvings associated with Malangan that are created uniquely for the individual dance, masks are often rented from the sculptor who created them and can be reused in the future.

 

Unknown artist. New Ireland, Southern area, Papua New Guinea. Figure, kulap. Chalk, pigment. Eskenazi Museum of Art 62.67

After the conversion of the peoples of New Ireland to Christianity the practice of chalk figures came to a quick end. The last figures to be made are thought to have been created around 1910.

Before the early twentieth century when a man or woman from a prosperous family passed away a male relative would travel to obtain a chalk figure. These figures were sometimes commissioned, but sometimes pre-made figures were purchased, always with the sex of the figure matching the sex of the deceased.

Once the male relative returned home the figure would be presented to the local leader who was in charge of such images and placed with other figures in a memorial shrine. This shrine, located within an enclosure, was only to be viewed by men, though women often gathered outside to mourn the deceased.

 

Unknown Mandak artist. New Ireland, Central area, Papua New Guinea. Memorial Figure. Wood, pigment, shell, sea snail operculum, fiber. Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art 91.498

Visually there are number of connections to the Malangan carvings of northern New Ireland, such as the predominant use of black, white, and red pigments; however, unlike the Malangan memorial carvings, this one would be kept over many years. In fact, whenever a new figure was carved all of the other figures would be brought out and repainted for the occasion.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of this type of figure is the presence of both male and female genitalia. It is thought that this may be a representation of the importance of both men and women within the community and as part of the reproductive cycle. However, very little firm evidence is known as these figures have not been created or used in several generations. Also, there are only a few known reports that describe their ceremonial context and these are based on very limited information. What is clear is that these figures were created to represent those who were powerful and important within their community.

Emma Kessler
Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
IU Eskenazi Museum of Art

If you would like to learn more about South Pacific and Oceanic Art visit the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Highlights from the Collection website.