Christie’s to Offer Polynesian Art Ohly Figure

. April 22, 2011 . 0 Comments

Christie’s African and Oceanic Art department have announced the Paris sale of a major piece of Central Polynesian art originating within the triangle formed by the Society, the Austral and the Cook Islands. The very rare Ohly figure is estimated between 600,000 and 800,000 euros.

There is a small corpus of extant wood carvings from Central Polynesia which continue to be an intriguing enigma. We understand today that Polynesian figurative carving, in essence, are metaphors for human ancestry and origin. However, the precise island origins and meanings were rarely recorded or correctly noted in the nineteenth century. Many were destroyed. Therefore, a complete corpus remains elusive.

A study of the traits of the Ohly figure place it closest in overall form to a figure labelled ‘The God Tangaroa, Tahiti, Polynesia’ in the Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland (Vc 1521). The arms carved free of the slightly distended body and falling from square shoulders, an ovoid head with triangular chin, long nose and domed forehead, and on a post. The Basel figure was admitted to the Museum der Kulturen in 1981 from the Basel Mission which was founded in 1815.

With possible Tahitian origins, the Ohly figure embodies precisely the minimalism and purity of form which inspired Gauguin in the 19th century, for example.

The figure was acquired in London in the 1958 by Ernest Ohly of the legendary Berkeley Galleries. Ohly and his father, William Ohly (1883–1955), founded the Berkeley Galleries after World War II, and were known for their eclectic exhibitions featuring African and Oceanic art. At the same time, they also curated exhibitions featuring Modern British artists – including Henry Moore, whose dialogue with ‘Les Arts Premiers’ as a source of inspiration is well documented. Of Oceanic art Moore observed: ‘The many islands of the Oceanic groups all produced their schools of sculpture with big differences in formvision. New Guinea carvings, with drawn-out spider-like extensions… a direct contrast with the featureless head and plain surfaces of Nukuoro carvings…’ In the last, he could have been describing the Ohly figure as well. Moore’s 1931 Reclining Figure was supposedly his first inspired specifically by Oceanic art of the caliber of the sublime Ohly Polynesian figure.

Image: Ohly Figure. Central Polynesia. Estimate: €600.000-800.000. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd 2011.

Auction: 14 June 2011

Viewing: 10, 11 and 13 June 2011

Category: Fine Art

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