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  • Picasso and the Easter Island "palm"
  • Paul G. Bahn, Catherine Orliac, and Michel Orliac

On a recent visit to Paris, one of us (PB) visited the newly renovated Picasso Museum. One of its most famous exhibits is the simple bull's head of 1942 which the artist made out of a bicycle handlebar (for the horns) and saddle (for the head). On display there was also a photograph taken by Brassaï of the sculpture, and lying across it was a wooden arm and hand which, according to Brassaï, was from Easter Island! (Figure 1).

Further investigation revealed something of the background to this photograph. According to Cowling and Golding (1994:31):

"in 1943 Picasso picked up a dressmaker's dummy from the turn of the century, added to it a head of his own devising and two arms, one from the Easter Island (this had been a gift to him from the dealer Pierre Loëb), and another more primitive one, again fashioned by himself: 'The Woman in a Long Dress' was subsequently either destroyed or dismantled, but fortunately not before a bronze cast of her had been made."

(Figure 2).

It seems that Picasso developed an interest in the art of Oceania during a visit to the Musée du Trocadéro, while his relations with Surrealists between 1920 and 1940 led him to produce three-dimensional works made out of various everyday objects (such as the bicycle / bull's head), and eventually the "Woman in a Long Dress" of 1943.

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Figure 1.

Pablo Picasso: "Bull head with the arm from Easter Island" (1942). Atelier des Grands-Augustins, Paris. Musée Picasso, Paris. Photo Brassaï. © Estate Brassaï-RMN.

Considerable light was shed on the subject by two of us (CO & MO), as we remembered having seen a poor photo of what is clearly the same arm and hand in the book by Macmillan Brown (1924:facing p. 142 & facing p. 164). The only information provided therein [End Page 45] is that it had been collected by the German geologist and meteorologist Walter Knoche during his expedition of 1911 (see Knoche 1925:Abb. 34), and that it was "probably held in the dances." Its extremity beyond the "elbow-ridge" is absent in this photograph–it must have been removed from the photograph when it was cut out for the publication (Figures 3 & 4).

Heyerdahl had noted the existence of this object, and mentioned it in his great compendium of Easter Island art: "Hands are in some cases carved as separate objects (Pls. 94, 202-3). One of these rare specimens in wood, collected by Knoche, is illustrated by Macmillan Brown (1924, facing p. 164) but the writer has not been able to locate its present whereabouts" (Heyerdahl 1976:221). In other words, Heyerdahl was utterly unaware of the subsequent history of this object and its ownership and artistic use by Picasso.

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Figure 2.

The cast of "The Woman in a Long Dress," with the Easter Island arm highlighted. Drawing by M. Orliac.

A somewhat rare volume, however (owned by CO & MO), provided the missing link in the story, as described by Loëb himself (Loëb 1945:29-30, authors' translation):

"One day, in the faubourg Saint-Honoré, I entered the establishment of Mettler, the youngest of our colleagues....I spotted a display case filled with fetishes from Easter Island: there were small bearded characters, with prominent cheekbones and ribs, skeletal, slightly curved, bending forwards and incredibly sad. Among them were two exceptional objects: The first was an almost life-size head; from the place where normally the ears occur, there emerged two stiff little atrophied arms. The sculptor had clearly followed the design of the stump that had been picked up or, if it is true that there are no trees on the island, from some debris of a boat found on the beach.

The second object was a forearm with its hand. Carved in a very hard wood, it ended at the articulation of the elbow with a slight ridge, carved into a crown. The hand, curved at the side, is short, with fingers...


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