Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
Provenance may have many dimensions
The detailed documentation of this sculpture, from the photo of its original location at Lake Sentani, to its verified chain of ownership, establishes its provenance and adds to its significance both as a masterpiece of art from West Papua, and as a work that inspired the surrealist Max Ernst and the sculptor Jacob Epstein.
Papua New Guinea
Double figure [to-reri uno]
19th century wood carved
177.2 h x 49.5 w x 19.1 d cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
In 1929 this sculpture, dating from the nineteenth century, was dredged from remote Lake Sentani in West Papua, where an old ceremonial house had collapsed. The Sentani people traditionally lived in communal dwellings built over the water and supported by tall, carved wooden poles that protruded through the floor into the living area above. These figures would have been positioned at the top of one such pole. The sculpture was photographed by Jacques Viot at the time it was recovered from the Lake. Viot had been sent to New Guinea by the art dealer Pierre Loeb to collect material for sale in Paris.
Jacob Epstein (1880–1959) bought the sculpture from Galerie Pierre Loeb in Paris. This sculpture was known to the Surrealists, who named it 'the lily'. It is thought to have inspired Max Ernst's sculpture Les asperges de la lune [Lunar asparagus] of 1935. Ernst probably saw it at a commercial gallery in Paris after 1929. Epstein then sold it. The then Australian National Gallery (now National Gallery of Australia), bought it from Gustave Schindler through Gaston de Havenon, New York, in April 1974.
The pointed faces, pronounced chins and slender limbs of these male and female figures are characteristic of art from the central north coast of West Papua. The sublime beauty of this sculpture makes it a work of enormous artistic significance; while its firm provenance allows an accurate reading of the cultural context from which it came. Its provenance also allows art historians to trace the sculpture's influence on later works, notably those by Max Ernst and Jacob Epstein.