Saturday, April 23, 2011

From Christie's Paris: "The minimalism and purity of form which inspired Gauguin"


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

PARIS.-    Christie's African and Oceanic Art department announce the 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.

Auction: 14 June 2011
Exhibition: 10, 11 and 13 June 2011


  1. A lovely object, enigmatic indeed, and a handsome post.

    I don't know what it is, Curtis, but I get an eerie feeling when I think of metaphors for human ancestry and origin having a price in euros.

    A Gauguin, yes.

    But this figure would be the sort of thing one would want to spot out of the corner of one's eye, on a remote path through the forest, hidden in a tangle of lantana, not in an auction house.

    Well, I know that's asking a lot, but...

    Or perhaps under a sofa cushion, many years after that party at which the mysterious uninvited stranger so aroused one's curiosity.

    One never learned the stranger's identity.

    And now, one day, feeling around under there for the remote -- this.

  2. I share your feelings on this. When I made the decision to depart art history graduate school, where I’d been very happy, because a person in my field had just completed her doctoral program in the then-“record time” of 12 years (NYU has since examined and rectified this aspect of my graduate division), I chose to go to law school instead of trying to remain in the art world because I knew I didn’t have the art/commercial gene. In some ways, I’m sorry about this. A good friend of mine who works at Christie’s enjoys and excels at his job and displays no ill effects from it. He tells me that leaving the office on a typical evening takes him across at least 4 or 5 different really enjoyable cocktail parties in various galleries. But it’s hard to change certain things about yourself and Eric’s job of discovering and ferreting out obscure treasures and persuading owners to part with them isn’t something I could ever master. Your forest path and sofa cushion ideas resonate with Caroline and me. On the drive to NY today, I read a review of a new Andrew Marvell biography by a Princeton professor that you would probably find interesting. I’ll ferret out the url and try to post on one of your recent BTP Marvell posts. I enjoyed reading the review. The Ohly figure is a handsome, kind of mischevious looking fellow, who reminds me of something I just saw watching an old X-Files. Curtis

  3. Curtis, your modesty is high on my list of your many endearing qualities, but we must stop short of allowing you to sell your own artistic sensibilities short. That's unnecessarily self-limiting. Your are a great family man, lawyer, friend to animals as well as humans, which is all wonderful, but the idiosyncratic and sophisticated twists and turns of your mind have always seemed to me those of an artist. At any rate I could in an instant compile a long list of soi-disant artists whose minds and works are far less interesting to me.

    And Happy Easter, by the way. I can't for the moment recall whether a rabbit is on board your ark at present, but if not, something tells me that's merely a temporary omission.

  4. Hi Tom. Happy Easter (again). Your words cheered me so much -- really, the nicest things anyone has ever said to me (Caroline excepted, I'm relieved to say) and so much appreciated. I hope your day was good. Ours was fine in any number of ways, some of them unexpected, which is always nice. Please give our love to Angelica and Juliet, whose (much too irregular postings) I discovered by happy accident one day when I was ferreting around for something else and came across her writing and drawing. I've formed some ambitious plans to launch into tomorrow in novel and improved ways. I guess we'll see how that goes. I would definitely settle just for days as pleasant as today has been. Curtis