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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Polynesian Art had reached the Conventional Stage, — but with Great Luxuriance in the South

Polynesian Art had reached the Conventional Stage,
but with Great Luxuriance in the South

(3) It was the symbolic stage that both painting and sculpture had reached in Polynesia; or, rather, they had attained the result of the symbolic stage. In painting the art was allowed great freedom in the grouping of the conventional symbols, so that at last the original form that repeats itself was completely obscured. In sculpture it was still in the mere elements of the human figure in most islands, tending here to make it rudely true to nature, there merely to symbolise, and again to free the limbs and features from convention and give them genuine life.

(4) Carving may be taken first; in the course of evolution it probably was not first, as decorating the human face and figure with pigments, based as it is on the natural amorous vanity of man, was doubtless the first of all arts, followed by painting other things as it has done the human figure. But carving shows Polynesian art at its highest. Apart from the fine faces and stalwart forms of the men, it was this that most struck the early voyagers, and its luxuriance increased as they voyaged southwards, the development being in stone in Easter Island and in wood in New Zealand. In the Cook or Hervey group there is much elaborate and intricate wood-carving, especially in the handles of their ceremonial axes and in their drums; but there is nothing of the bold sculpture that characterises the two southern outliers of Polynesia. That such a development is due to the more bracing climate we may reject at once, though that may have had its influence. Scenic beauty again will not bear investigation as the true cause, for Easter Island has none. page 181The most probable common cause apart from exotic influence is human stratification: these two as the farthest south lands of Polynesia were culs-de-sac; a race or tribe once in them could not be driven farther south. Hence they were probably the refuges of all navigating peoples expelled from the tropical islands to the north. And it is this layer on layer of humanity that produces the great civilisations and empires and advances in culture; for crossing of breeds is the only effective method of creating numerous new competitive varieties and types. And it is out of a vast number of these that the fittest surviving will be most likely to show an advance on the past. Nor is it merely human beings that come under this law, but human ideas and human arts. As an extensive land area, with great variety of country, mountain and plain, forest and grass land, New Zealand would give shelter to the exiles from islands to the north, till they were able to hold their own and amalgamate with any new-comers. Thus every phase of their culture would have a chance, and the various types of art that flourished would come into vigorous competition, ensuring the survival of the fittest. And the great timbers of the country made certain that, if the art that was to dominate was carving, it would be carving in wood.

(5) In New Zealand there is too great a variety of carving to belong to one stage of culture or one pure race. There is the minute symbolic carving and scroll work that is so plentiful on paddles from the islands; these are evidently connected with religion, for wherever we find a paddle or axe handle or drum elaborately and minutely carved, we may be sure that it is not for ordinary use, but ceremonial. This is especially the case with those from the Cook group, and most of all from Mangaia. And this is the Polynesian island that comes the nearest to New Zealand in the beauty of its carved work, though by no means in its variety. In its page 182carvings many of its conventional forms are human faces or figures degenerated into geometrical forms, chiefly the rectangle, square, and triangle, but with an occasional appearance of the crescent or curve. Sometimes it went as far as the open work of the Maori, but it was either with minute and trivial or with heavy, ungraceful effect.

(6) The Maori seldom or never allowed the pattern or individual figure to override the general impression. However minute and elaborate the details may be, one generally receives from the full design the sense of grace or richness. Symmetry never fails the artist, inexact and primitive though his tools were. Never a line or curve is faulty or out of place, though they may interlace in a bewildering arabesque, and though they may vary to suit the material and its inequalities. And no two designs are exactly alike, the artist's imagination never failing him in its freshness and originality, even though he may be hampered by tradition that is to him absolutely sacred.