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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Chapter XIV — Polynesian Art: Carving and Tattooing

page 178

Chapter XIV
Polynesian Art: Carving and Tattooing

When the Arts become Masculine, Art Develops;
but in Priestly Hands it becomes Conventional

(1) If the arts and industries of Polynesia stood alone, the contrast between their primeval and advanced phases would not be so piquant. Arts develop into art; human efforts applied to the practical needs of life are the basis of the arts; human imagination overriding the mere utilities is the basis of art; in the later or higher phases of civilisation the two often coalesce, art contriving to serve a useful purpose as well as the imaginative satisfaction of the senses. In the early stages or the evolution of culture they are kept rigidly apart, though often allies in the service of religion and symbolic meaning. As soon as art appears distinct from the arts we may be sure that man has entered into his rule of domestic and social life; hunting and fishing and their subsidiary employments no longer monopolise his attention; the matriarchate in the household has passed away, with its failure to specialise, and man has become lord of the inner life as well as of the out-door. Religion has penetrated into every detail of existence, and its symbolism demands the development of art. Art, in short, appears in the period of the masculine specialisation of the arts.

(2) The earliest art we have any record of is, of course, page 179the pictorial. In the caves of Perigord have been found etchings of mammoths, reindeer, and horses that are extraordinary in their beauty of outline; and from some in Portugal finely tinted frescoes representing animal life have been lately reported. Now, these are the efforts of early palaeolithic man, who dwelt in caves and felt the sting of the glacial period, at least a hundred thousand years ago. The singular thing is that no such faithful draughts manship has been found among the remains and traces of neolithic man in Europe. He, as well as the man of the copper and bronze ages after him, satisfied himself with geometrical and conventional drawings. It seems, in fact, that this is the first advance on the primeval truth to Nature. It is probably due to religious symbolism. Palaeolithic man introduced life in its reality into his drawings and etchings and paintings, oftenest in the individual, but occasionally in the groupa man bitten by a snake, or leading a horse, or deer in flight or in combat. It was doubtless the necessity of marking out the special animal of the tribe that led to such skill in line-drawing; and it was doubtless the beginning of totemism that by frequent practice brought the palaeolithic artist to such perfection. The moment religion seized on the totem and the art of representing it, the priest or chief and not the instinctive artist drew the figures, and they became stiff and conventional and ultimately symbolic; and no one, however clever, dared to depart from their untruth to life. All the true artist could do with them was to weave them into an arabesque or pattern, that in the general effect pleased his artistic sense. In this religious or symbolic stage of the graphic arts no advance can be made except in the grouping of the symbols and in the varied artistic designs that the grouping may bear. A later stage, generally due to a new religion, frees the artist to some extent from these fetters, but never leaves him wholly at page 180liberty to move as his genius dictates amongst his materials and his imaginings.

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.

The Origin of the Maori Curve and Spiral

(7) But the feature in which Maori carving art transcends all the rest of Polynesia is the use of the curve, and especially the spiral. In the bow and stern pieces of the canoes it is called by the natives pitau, the name for the centre frond of an edible tree-fern. And there it has indeed a strong resemblance to the young half-uncurled fern frond. But in tattooing and in the carving on the bargeboards and lintels of runangas and patakas it does not so closely resemble this; whilst in some of the older bow-pieces of canoes the two spiral whorls are more concentric than the fern frond, and in far the larger majority of those open-work carvings it is a double spiral that appears, and not a single spiral, such as this vegetable model would suggest. And it is difficult to page 183understand why the Maori artists should have taken it as the pattern of the main ornament on their canoes. On the food-store one can see its relevancy, as the fern-root was such an important constituent of their food supply, especially before the kumara was acclimatised, and from the tree-fern the pith was extracted as another source of sustenance. But on the large canoes there is no relevancy in it, unless we take it in a far-fetched way as representing Tane, the god of the forests, out of the trees of which the canoes were made. But if this is their model, why did such supreme artists omit the most graceful element in the fern frond, the long, tapering, feather-like stem, as it unwound its spiral into a leaf? To take the end and omit half the beauty does not seem consonant with the great artistic taste that produced these lace-like wood-carvings. Doubtless the resemblance to the fern frond is an afterthought, suggested partly by the analogy, and partly by the name, pitau, given to a canoe without a human figurehead.

Tattooing may have given the Cue

(8) There are two alternative probable sources of the ornament. One is the tattooing on the faces of the warriors, Undoubtedly decoration of the person comes long before any other; for the desire of appeal to the feminine imagination appears earliest after the methods of satisfying hunger in the culture of primitive man. As amongst birds and most of the animals, it is the male amongst untutored mankind that has the self-decorative passion first. When civilisation is evolved, with its elaboration of masculine pursuits and its comparative seclusion of women in the household, the passion changes its sex. Amongst the Polynesians the woman was still the burden-bearer, and warlike and hunting man had to appeal to her imagination by personal adornment as well as by personal courage. Hence his eagerness that every inch page 184of his body that was not covered should exhibit the most graceful ornamentation his race was capable of. And as his prowess and skill as a warrior rose, the imagination of the face-artists must have been stimulated to advance also, that he might conquer the hearts of the younger women. And the transition from temporary painting to the permanency of tattooing must have been greatly aided by the necessity of courage in the endurance of pain that is entailed, as well as that perennial desire of the human heart to be "beautiful for ever." The round outlines of the cheeks, the temples, the nostrils, the lips, and the upper thighs and arms may well have suggested circular and curving ornamentation; they certainly lent themselves easily to it once the artists invented it. But if it began with concentric circles on these parts, it was not likely to develop into the spiral; as Professor Haddon, in his "Evolution in Art," says, "There is a great tendency for spirals to degenerate into concentric circles." "In fact, one usually finds the two figures associated together, and the sequence is one of decadence, never the evolution of spirals from circles." And though the lips and nostrils suggest the spiral, the other rondures rather suggest the concentric circle.

Whence the Spiral in Tattooing?

(9) But even if we accept tattooing, the more primeval art, as the model and inspiration in wood-carving, we have still to find the origin of the spiral in tattooing. The finger-prints used as signatures or ownership marks might well have been one source of inspiration to artists who must have studied minutely every line upon the human form and epidermis. But the spirals on the fingers are too elongated and too involved in outside concentricism to have given the models to the artists of the older spirals, which are simple and rounded, especially in wood-carving. Of the elaborate spiral page 185work on the face and figure they may have been the inspiration. But there is not so much resemblance between the finger-print and the spirals of the canoe and house carving.

(10) There is much to confirm the idea that the art of tattooing amongst the Polynesians had the origin of its variety in the tribal or totem or individual marks. Even to the present day the carver of the ancestral wooden images distinguishes the tribe of the ancestor by the peculiar tattooing; each individual seems to have had some variation, by which he might be known either alive or dead on the battlefield. In the older style of tattooing, called mokokuri, consisting of dots and dashes or vertical and horizontal lines, it seems to the European eye more easy to make distinction; for occasional variation is sometimes introduced in the form of a mark like an S. And in one of Weber's illustrations to "Captain Cook's Voyages" a chief of Santa Christina is represented with tattoo marks that might well be mistaken for a reporter's shorthand; his brow is divided by four cross lines into panes or compartments, each of which contains its own special straight lines, or hooks, or spirals, or interrogation points. Some of these might possibly be the rude beginnings of the New Zealand spiral tattooing; but they are divided by long ages of development from it, for it is indeed a fine art. Again, in the Marquesas and on Easter Island there is elaborate floral and faunal tattooing that might have suggested some of the curvilinear conventions of the New Zealand art; and on the lower limbs of some of the Maoris we see elaborate leaf decorations, such as are to be found in the painting of the rafters of their carved houses.

(11) But the tattooed natural history on the bodies of the Eastern Polynesians is as different from the graceful spiral arabesques of New Zealand as the palaeolithic mammoth page 186and reindeer etchings from the neolithic geometrical designs. And the latter, though less pictorial and less natural, are undoubtedly the more advanced. That the delicate spiral varieties of the Maori face-patterns could have developed naturally out of the curves of the Eastern Polynesian floral and faunal decoration does not seem possible; still less possible is the evolution of the dot and dash of the older Maori tattooing into the later fine art. The change is rather revolutionary than evolutionary, and seems to indicate a new radical element that had cultivated the art before the Polynesians arrived, perhaps an artistic element that the Japanese found in their archipelago when they intruded and partly absorbed, partly drove south over the ocean. Mataora, the legendary inventor of the new spiral art, is said to have learned it in Po, or the under-world of darkness; and we have seen reason to think that this often means in the tropics the long nights of the northern winter, and the people that came thence and had their paradise in the bosom of the earth instead of in the sky.

(12) One feature of the art that seems to militate against its coming from a conquered people is that it is a warrior's decoration. The common men of the tribe and the slaves had no right to it; and the women only when they were about to be married, and so become part of a warrior's household, were allowed to be tattooed, and then only on the lips and the chin, and occasionally over the eyebrows. And in many of the pictures of natives in the books of the early voyagers and travellers there are married women without any sign of tattooing. In the illustrations of Tasman's visit to New Zealand none of the natives, either male or female, are tattooed. In Weber's volume of illustrations to "Cook's Voyages" a native family is pictured wholly without tattooing they must have belonged to one of the defeated aboriginal tribes; they have wavy, almost curly, hair, and they have page 187kilts on that seem made of skins. Yet, on the other hand, we find Colenso and other observers reporting that the women of the Southern tribes were often tattooed on the face like men; and in one of the illustrations to "Cook's Voyages" a woman is so represented.

(13) But there must have been many types of aboriginals in New Zealand at different stages of culture, as we can see from the varied styles of dwelling. And it is in the North Island especially we find legends of primitive peoples, supernaturalised into fairies, who teach the new-comers various arts. It is not an uncommon thing for a conquering aristocracy to absorb an art from the conquered and then prohibit the teachers from using it. Undoubtedly the Polynesians brought tattooing with them to their new country; but the sudden change from the stiff dot and dash to the beautiful spiral and curve and scroll combination must have been due to no mere change of environment and climate, but to new teachers and models, and after learning and monopolising the art they kept it surrounded with the religious rites and incantations of the old style, in order to secure the monopoly, allowing only the women of the conquered that they took into their households to have any share in it. This exception was made because the conquerors had darker skins and objected to the red lips and the fair skin of the women as unnatural and ugly, the reason the Maori men still give for retaining the custom with regard to their married women, whilst abandoning it themselves.

Tattooing the Face was a Fine Art

(14) And this suggests that one of the motifs of the art was sexual; it was intended to increase the influence of the individual over the imagination of the other sex, an intention brought out more clearly by the body tattooings page 188of the Samoans, Tongans, and other islanders. In New Zealand the concentration of all the resources of the art upon the face would alone reveal that there had been a revolution in clothing through the change in climate; a man has no passionate longing any more than a woman to decorate what will never be seen. The islanders had little or no face-tattooing; there was sufficient canvas for the artist in the broad skin-expanses otherwise exposed in the tropics. That the Maoris still continued to tattoo other parts shows their tropical origin and their habit of stripping for war and for work, that had followed them even into the bracing climate of New Zealand. Some of the tattooings of the Polynesians seem to be a reminiscence of garments or body-coverings; the Easter Island women and some of the men of some other islands have an imitation of stockings and sandals or mocassins, and others an imitation of drawers; it looks as if in migrating from a colder climate to a warmer the body-coverings were discarded, and tattooed imitations were substituted. It is even said that the Polynesians who came to New Zealand had no tattooing on the face, but only about the thighs.

(15) Be this as it may, it was face-tattooing that ultimately became the essential of a warrior, and on it the finest art of the race was concentrated. This may have been due to the custom of preserving the heads of friends to mourn over, but it was still more due to the necessity of wearing body raiment in the colder winters of the new country. At any rate, the thigh-tattooing degenerated into a conventional pattern pretty much the same on all bodies. The face patterns are infinitely varied, and especially marked by the beauty and delicacy of their details and the grace of their general effect.

(16) And that there were true artists amongst the operators is evident not merely from the results, but from the de-page 189scription of an operator and his work given by Earle, the draughtsman to the Beagle Expedition. He had been a slave; but men from all parts and all tribes crowded to him to have their faces beautified, and he had grown wealthy and influential. This indicates that, though there was so much that was tapu, or sacred, about the operation, the conquering immigrants accustomed themselves to the conquered and lowborn operating, an indication that goes far to confirm the evidences that the fine art was acquired from some aboriginal race. The greater beauty and variety of the forms and details than in house-decoration, or even canoe-carving, shows the effect on art of an untrammelled career for the artists. Special families were devoted to carving. But in tattooing it was the individual that succeeded, and won both wealth and fame; the talent was allowed a free career, in spite of birth or environment. And the artist knew that his works would have enduring fame; the faces he had done would touch the hearts of generation after generation, for the heads would be preserved as heirlooms in a family, like the portraits of ancestors in Europe, done by great painters.

War was the Primary Aim of Tattooing

(17) It is plain, then, that though it may have afterwards taken into it a sexual and amorous motif, the custom had its origin amongst so advanced and warlike a race in a more limited sphere, that of war and the yearning for fame. Some of the accounts given by natives indicate that it was a record of a warlike life; the moko was added to as the owner of it added to his achievements in battle. Yet it is not always the greatest warrior that shows the most elaborate face-pattern. There must, however, be considerable truth in the statements. For the moko was looked on as a heraldic blazon to be proud of, part of it being the privilege mark of the family or tribe, page 190most of it the sign of the individual glory acquired by feats of war; and the head after death was kept for long years by the family as a reminder of the warrior's deeds. Even during life the moko was used by the individual chief as a signature to land transfers.

(18) Undoubtedly its main intention, as far as the face was concerned, was warlike. It was intended to make the fighting-man look more formidable; and, as grimacing and tongue-thrusting formed one of the essentials of the art of war, as is evident from the war-dance, the moving spirals and scrolls would add greatly to the terrifying effect that was meant to be produced. But red ochre was the favourite colour for all for bellicose purposes. The face, as well as the body of the warrior, was often smeared or striped with red, occasionally alternated with bands of black. Blue and yellow were now and then used on the face, chiefly by girls, seldom or never by men. The question naturally arises why, when red was their favourite colour for all purposes of war, the warrior should have the permanent colourings of his face in black or dark blue. The answer is obvious, that the colouring was exotic like the art and was adopted with the art. We know that one at least of the aboriginal races, the Patupaiarehe, abhorred kokowai, or red, and the canoes of the district to which they belonged were painted black instead of the usual red. And this, with the passion of the Maoris for the fiery colour, goes a long way towards confirming the indications that the spiral or scroll tattooing was a pre-Polynesian art.