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Reviewed by:
  • Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island
  • Georgia Lee
Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island. Eric Kjellgren, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001. 8 × 11, 80 pages, 16 color photographs, 58 black-and-white photographs, line drawings. Softcover. ISBN: 0-300-09078-1.

Splendid Isolation is a high quality illustrated catalog produced to accompany an exhibit of Easter Island artifacts that were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [End Page 305] from December 11, 2001, to August 4, 2002.

The publication is divided into four sections: "Introduction: Remote Possibilities" by Eric Kjellgren; "Changing Faces: Rapa Nui Statues in the Social Landscape" by Jo Anne Van Tilburg; "Rapa Nui Art and Aesthetics" by Adrienne L. Kaeppler; the catalog of objects in the exhibition (36 pages); and a selected bibliography.

The catalog section beautifully illustrates the objects in the exhibit, which is the first American showing of art objects from Easter Island collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The illustrations comprise a diverse group of wood carvings, barkcloth figures, carved stone boulders, a moai head, very rare feathered headdresses, and a few of the famous rongorongo boards. It is a small collection, but Rapanui artifacts are rare, "old" pieces are scattered in museums around the world, and never before have these artifacts from both museums and private collections been brought together for such an exhibit.

Kjellgren's Introduction provides background information about the island and its history, including the influence that Easter Island imagery had on the Surrealists. Kjellgren based his essay upon secondary sources, and a few errors have crept into his text (i.e., Easter Island is 2300 miles west of South America, not 1400 miles, as Kjellgren states on p. 13). Two other problems are mentioned at the end of this review. However, the general reader who knows little about the island would find the essay to be an ample introduction to the island and the culture.

Van Tilburg's essay describes the archaeology of the island, focusing much attention on the famous statues and their use and re-use, how they may have been moved, and what happened on the island that caused the society to crash.

Kaeppler's essay on Rapa Nui Art and Aesthetics concentrates on Easter Island art in the context of the rest of Polynesia, and how these objects might have been used in ceremonies and rituals. Her chapter illustrates pieces of Easter Island art in other collections in Europe, allowing the reader to make comparisons to those in the Metropolitan exhibit. She describes the artistic conventions that distinguish Rapanui art and suggests that the future creative arts of the Rapanui will be poetry, music, and dance.

The catalog is the heart of the publication and will be treasured by those who know and appreciate the art of Easter Island. The color plate of the "Naturalistic Male Figure" (Pl. 13, p. 52) is a knockout; a close-up of this figure is also used for the cover illustration. The wooden male figures have carved designs on their heads. While these designs are mentioned in the captions, they are not illustrated. As the figures are so rare, detailed illustrations might have been indicated. The text calls the additional head designs "fish-men": ". . . human heads and long flowing beards." This maybe a misreading of the designs, but without seeing them, it is hard to judge. It is possible that they are octopus forms with human faces (Lee 1992 : 164).

Five "Lizardman" (moko) are illustrated (Pls. 16–20, pp. 55–56), three from private collections. These wonderfully combined creatures with human, bird, and lizard attributes are fine examples of the Rapanui penchant for visual punning, where one form flows into another. I also found the photographs of the 'Orongo boulders (Pls. 2–3, pp. 44–45) to be of considerable interest. They were collected by the Agassiz expedition in 1904–1905 and are now in the Peabody Museum. Having been preserved in the museum all these years, the carving is sharp and clear. Similar boulders, still in situ at 'Orongo, are now faint and 'soft' due to weathering and erosion.

Some of the...