The Artistic Degradation of Easter Island wood-carving


James Hornell


The Journal of the Polynesian Society

Volume 49, No. 194 



Avec le développement des relations sporadiques avec le monde extérieur un commerce régulier a pris de l'expansion sur l'Île de Pâques. Ses habitants se sont en effet mis à produire des statuettes grotesques (en comparaison avec leurs statuettes antiques) pour les vendre aux équipages des navires faisant escale à l'île. Ainsi en 1924, Douglas et Johnston quand ils furent sur le point de quitter l'île, mentionnent que  : "toute la population semble être venue regarder notre départ et nous nous sommes aperçus que la plupart des hommes avaient l'intention de visiter le navire dans le but de vendre le curieux personnages en bois qu'ils produisent en nombre extraordinaire."







In “The Oldman Collection of Polynesian Artifacts,” Memoirs of the Polynesian Society, No. 15, plates 74-78 depict typical examples of carved wooden figures of men graven by inhabitants of Easter island in the early days of European voyaging in the Pacific. Since then, with the growth of spasmodic intercourse with the outer world, a regular trade has grown up in modern times in the manufacture of grotesque images for sale to the crews of ships calling at the island. In 1924, Douglas and Johnston record that when they were about to leave the island “the whole population seemed to have collected to watch our departure and we found that most of the men intended to pay a visit to the ship for the purpose of selling the curious wooden figures they produce in extraordinary numbers.”


An example of this modern mass-production art came under my notice recently. Brought home by a sailor a number of years ago (probably not less than fifty), it represents a male figure carved out of a hard dark-brown wood; it is now in the Hastings Museum, England. The donor rescued it from destruction in the nick of time; the owner had begun to saw it up for firewood—the saw cut is visible as a line across the lower part of the abdomen.


The figure is of interest as an example of how contact with Europeans, mostly rough and uneducated men, with the consequent demand for inexpensive “curiosities” on the part of the visitors, coupled with the introduction and free use of steel tools, have led to degradation of the artistic expression of native craftsmen. In the case of Easter island the result has been what in a small way is the mass-production of imitation antiques; of this the example shown in fig. 1 is typical.






The modern image represents a nude male figure of clumsy and disproportionate dimensions. The total height is 26 inches, with a maximum breadth (at the ears) of 4¾ins. A glance at the plate will show how extreme is this faulty layout of the various parts. The length of the thick and stumpy legs is contained some three and a half times in the total height, whereas the head, 6½ ins. long, is equal in length to a full quarter of the height of the figure.


Apart from departure from the saner proportions of the ancient images and the heavier and clumsier modelling, the modern design simplifies many important features. Thus we find that the appearance of extreme emaciation is absent, and the face and head are shown less grotesque; the eyes are small, made apparently of bone trouser-buttons with tiny rough fragments of obsidian as pupils. Each of the ears, carved in complete adhesion to the side of the head, is reduced to a broad ring of flesh through which a long roll of twisted hair or cloth appears to have been passed, with an equal amount above and below the ring, whereas in the old images the curves of the upper part of the ear are expressed with a definite approximation to actuality. Both clavicles and nipples are omitted in the modern image, their place taken by the glyph of a crested bird, a device never seen on the breast in old images.


Another departure from the typical convention is to show jointing of the sternum or breast-bone, a duplication of the ornamental articulations of the vertebral column. The penis is represented by a conical projection, a concession maybe to missionary prudery. Another major departure from the old type, prompted doubtless by desire to economise time and labour, is seen in the upright carriage of the figure as contrasted with the concave forward curve as seen in profile, characteristic of the older type.


In spite of all these modifications and simplifications the latter-day sculptor retained numerous features of the traditional design. These include the enormous hooked nose, the curly “imperial” on the chin, the bone and obsidian eyes, the emphasis laid upon the projection of the ribs through the skin, the collapsed condition of the abdomen immediately below the diaphragm, the extreme prominence of the bushy eyebrows, and jointed vertebral column and the graving of glyphs on the crown of the head.


The cranial glyphs consist of the representation of a crested bird with outspread wings and wedge-shaped tail incised on each parietal region; arching over each bird is an incised scroll with incurved ends (fig. 2), possibly intended to represent curling locks of hair; on the back of the head are two smaller scrolls of similar shape.








A circular depression above the buttocks and a little way below the termination of the vertebral column may represent the conspicuous circle seen in the lumbar region on certain of the gigantic stone images lying in profusion on the slopes of Rano-raraku, and well marked on the back of the statue of Hoa-haka-nanaia standing in the portico of the British Museum. That this wooden figure is modern is shown by the fact that the marks left by the use of a toothed metal saw are clearly seen on the inside of both legs, while the edges of the glyphs are sharp and clear, such as only a keen steel blade, knife or chisel, could produce. The quality of the finish is excellent, the surface perfectly smoothed and polished, bespeaking definite pride of workmanship.