Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Masterpieces of Polynesian Art - Hawaiian Pendant - Metropolitan Museum


Part of the very small collection of Hawaiian Art in the Metropolitan Museum, it was bought in the London Salerooms of Sotheby's in 1961 by Nelson Rockefeller and was donated to the museum in 1979. It is one of the greatest masterpieces of Hawaiian Art a fact largely unrecognized due to its tiny size and the fact of thats its existance within the Metropolitan Museum is slightly oddball being not really part of a significant Hawaiian Collection and subsequently buried in a mass of great art inside one of the greatest museums in the world. It is catalogued as 18th–19th century, its size is H. 2 3/8 x W. 1 1/2 x D. 1 3/4 in. (6 x 3.8 x 4.5 cm) and is made of whalebone.

The pose suggests a leaping or falling warrior which if the Metropolitan Museums dating is correct can probably be tied to a specific historical event; the Battle of Nu?uanu "the leaping mullet”, fought in May 1795 on the southern part of the island of O'ahu in the final days of King Kamehameha I's wars to unify the Hawiian Islands, "the leaping mullet" refers to a large number of Oahu warriors driven off the cliff in the final phase of the battle.

Kamehameha I had begun his campaign to unify Hawaii in 1783, but prior to 1795 had only managed to unify the Big Island. However, in 1794 a civil war broke out when the chief of Oahu, Kahekili II, died. The civil war was fought between his half-brother Ka?eokulani and his son Kalanikupule. Kalanikupule ultimately won, but emerged from the war greatly weakened.

During this time, Kamehameha had been equipping his army with modern muskets and cannon, as well as training his men in their use under direction of British Sailor John Young.In February 1795 he assembled the largest army the Hawaiian islands had ever seen, with about 12,000 men and 1,200 war canoes (at this time, the British estimated the entire population of the Hawaiian Islands at less than 300,000; modern anthropologists believe it was closer to one million). Kamehameha initially moved against the southern islands of Maui and Molokai, conquering them in the early spring after which he invaded Oahu.

The Battle of Nu?uanu began when Kamehameha's forces landed on the southeastern portion of O?ahu near Wai?alae and Waikiki. After spending several days gathering supplies and scouting Kalanikupule's positions, Kamehameha's army advanced westward, encountering Kalanikupule's first line of defense near the Punchbowl Crater. Splitting his army into two, Kamehameha sent one half in a flanking maneuver around the crater and the other straight at Kalanikupule. Pressed from both sides, the O?ahu forces retreated to Kalanikupule's next line of defence near La?imi. While Kamehameha pursued, he secretly detached a portion of his army to clear the surrounding heights of the Nu?uanu Valley of Kalanikupule's cannons. Kamehameha also brought up his own cannons to shell La?imi. During this part of the battle, both Kalanikupule and Kaiana were wounded, Kaiana fatally. With its leadership in chaos, the Oahu army slowly fell back north through the Nu?uanu Valley to the cliffs at Nu?uanu Pali. Caught between the Hawaiian Army and a 1000-foot drop, over 400 Oahu warriors either jumped or were pushed over the edge of the Pali. In 1898 construction worker working on the Pali road discovered 800 skulls which were believed to be the remains of the warriors that fell to their deaths from the cliff above.

Though he escaped the battle, Kalanikupule was later captured and sacrificed. This battle was the climax of Kamehameha's campaign, after this battle his kingdom was for the first time referred to as the Kingdom of Hawaii. The islands were still not united. He had to capture the remaining neighboring islands of Kauai and Niihau. First he had to put down an uprising on the Big Island, and then he began his preparations for the conquest of Kauai. However, before this battle could be fought the king Kaumualii of Kauai submitted to Kamehameha, giving him effective control over the Hawaiian Islands

However Old Polynesia has many tales of leaping warriors, almost all relating to incidents in war where when faced with certain death from overwelming superiority of numbers, a warrior had thrown himself off a cliff to escape his enemies. Amongst the Maori I know of many such stories, some are mythical but many are undoubtably historical and undoubtedly factual. Two of these being from just one small area of the Kaikoura Coast. In this context it is entirely possible that the carving does not represent the lost warriors or the Battle of Nu?uanu, indeed it is entirely possible looking at the pendent itself that this piece predates 1795, perhaps by a considerably margin.

Rating the Metropolitan Museum's Hawaiian Pendant as one of the greatest masterpieces of Hawaiian Art would probably surprise some people including no doubt those who run the Metropolitan Museum. But the fact that the work remains largely unrecognized can be quite easily explained by returning to the subject of scale; this is a very small object not three inches tall and this small scale is the main reason it has not received the acclaim it deserves. One of the more interesting aspects of art history and art apprecitation is how often some great and famous image of art surprises those physically seeing it for the first time as small; the classic example being Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory in the Museum of Modern Art which is a mere 13" across. It would make an interesting subject for a Doctoral Thesis as to exactly why familiarity with an art work by image alone fools the human brain as to its size. Perhaps in Dali's case the Persistence of Memory is so famous and popular, and has had such a huge effect on 20th Century Art we just naturally assume it must be large or at least a great deal larger than when we come upon it on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. In other words reputation preceeded it, but there is another explaination to do with the skill of the artist in breadth of vision and attention to detail, which the briefest look at Dali's masterpiece reveal it possesses both in spades.

Relating this to the Metropolitan Museum carving, if it was not described on their website as a pendant made of whalebone, both facts which immediately suggest its true size it would be easy to imagine this object in wood or stone as ten times its true size and in fact one could blow this object up to one hundred times its true size and it would still work as an art work indeed there is something about its sculptural quality that would work very well as an Jacob Epstein or Henry Moore monumental marble twenty feet tall suspended in front of the Metropolitan Museum.

As an artistic concept is has few rivals in Hawaiian Art and passes the true test of a masterpiece which is that is hard to imagine how it could be improved, something the Dali's painting fails to do if we look at the two oddly clumsy passages in the painting that I will allow the reader to find for themselves. The carving also has no precedent or parallel anywhere in Polynesian Art History, except in so far as Hawaiian carving is almost always of the highest order in excecution and for uniqueness of vision. This lack of design precedent is hard to explain except as an art work out of its Time, in other words the piece may be far older than its ascribed 18th or 19th Century date, perhaps some freak of nature that survived in tropic Polynesian where so little Archaic Art is found.

If the pendant is indeed far older that its Metrpolitian Museum atribution suggests, its survival is probably due to the whalebone itself, and there are certainly ample presidents for bone and ivory surviving very long periods though admitedly we are talking of temperate Europe. The attribution to the late 18th or early 19th Century is I suspect largely due to it being marine mammal material; the assumption being that whale bone and ivory became readily available only with the presence of American whalers using Hawaii as a resupply point as they traded desirable whale and walrus bone and ivory for pigs and taro. However there is plenty of evidence that whales were available to the Hawaiians probably via natural mortality allowing occasional carcasses to wash up on beaches just as they did in New Zealand which allowed a considerable amount of Sperm whale tooth and bone to be used in New Zealand Achacic Period Art. There should be no reason why the same would not hold true in Hawaii where even today when whale populations are still a fraction of that in the 18th century yet Whale Watching in Hawaii is a very viable tourist activity.

The case for the pendant being far older that its current attribution, needs to have some serious careats. We know little of its provenance prior to the 1961 Sotherby's sale. What we do know is much cave grave robbing took place in Hawaii prior to this period and it is quite possible for such an item to find its way into the International Art Market without its provenance, epecially such a small piece, whereas the appearance of a large wooden Aumakua figure on the art market would have been cause for questions being asked . I have not seen the piece personally and can only raise the question of its possible age on stylistic grounds, based on photographs. The Metropolitan Museum is one of the stand out museums worldwide who actually photograph their collections properly as the multi angled images of the carving show. The source material of the carving is described as whalebone and the images do not suggest whale ivory but probably Sperm whale jaw. My raising doubt of its date of attribution is purely from an Art History perspective, that lack of precedent or parallel in Hawaiian Collections. From a point of subject matter the piece fits perfectly as being inspired by the death of the warriors on the cliffs at Nu?uanu Pali in 1795. But my experience of Polynesian Art History suggests one off artistic concepts are rare. Polynesian artists tended to repeat know patterns and this lack of another other example for the Metropolitan Museum pendant is a red flag no serious Art Historian should ignore.

Of the piece itself, it is interesting that having carved my own version of this pendant a year ago in Totara I thought I knew the work intimately, but writing this article I found that there are subtlies I previously have not noticed. In fact studying it again I have not found room to doubt my inclusion of the work into Masterpieces of Polynesian Art, but rather I find myself wondering where it sits in the Pathenon of great Polynesian Masterpieces. Again we should be very grateful that the Metropolitan Museum allowed the pendant to be so lovingly photographed because each image brings us closer to a real appreciation of its genius. Each of these images by change of angle or profile reveal a different character to the art work. This itself is testement to the genius of the sculpture, and I chose that word carefully because sculptural is exactly the quality this carving possesses. This difference is best revealed if we think of the act the carving depicts a falling man or is it a leaping man, the differences in meaning are emmence. Turning my own version of the carving in my hand suggests both, as do the images of the original, as did the pose when I saw the image for the first time suggest the falling warriors of Nu?uanu Pali. This idea is hard to shake off because the story of the defeated warriors is tragic and powerful. Herb Kane painted a picture of it which is probably close to the reality of the scene. What is interesting is the difference in the numbers that were supposed to have died; 400 as opposed to the skulls that were found by the road builders in 1898. The explaination is fairly simple, the other 400 were the bodies of those slain in the battle as well as whose wounded; all were hurled after the desperate warriors who jumped. This brutality gives a clear picture of the level of utu or payment demanded in this conflict.

It is strange given the massive importance of this event in Hawaiian history that the Metropolitan Museum makes no mention of it in its catalogue entry for the carving. For this reason it is very important that an attempt be made to correctly date the piece or at least disprove my suggestion that the piece may be older. From an Art History perspective either result would be a win, for a carving linked to a commemoration of the Battle of Nu?uanu would give the work tremedous mana and might do more for my attempt to have it recognised as the great masterpiece I believe it is. But to explain these reasons we need to go much deeper into Hawaiian figure carving and just why Hawaiian carving stands apart from Polynesian carving persay.

Quality in Polyneian Art flowed out of and followed the migration patterns of the spread of Polynesians across the Pacific Ocean. First there was the settlement of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa around 800 BC, the colonization of the central Pacific starting with the Marquesas then the Society Islands between AD 1025 and 1120 and dispersed to New Zealand, Hawai?i and Rapa Nui and other locations between AD 1190 and 1290. The best and most highly evolved carving and the most unique and orginal carving all center on New Zealand, Hawai?i and Rapa Nui. In Samoa carving degraded to the point of irrelevance mainly because Samoans were more interested in social art which concentrated on ceremony and body adornment. Tahitan Art and Marqusan art seemed to sit between the vibrant art of the youngest and farthest islands of New Zealand, Hawai?i and Rapa Nui and Tongan art, Tonga's position being interesting because it tended to supply carvers and carving to both Samoa and Fiji and its carving was good and interesting rather than great. If we look at this pattern of dispersal, rise and decline of art it is entirely possible that Samoa may have once suppled great carvers but our view of Polynesian carving is wholly concentrated on recorded history which follows the contact and post-contact period. This snap shot of Polynesian Art at the time of contact and in the years that immediately followed contact mean our view of Polynesian Art is myopic and stilted, which is why I have always been fasinated by surviving examples of earlier art and believe these emmencely important to a true understanding of the creative depth of Polynesian Art and to our understanding of the influences that shaped it.

Hawaiian carving is powerful and dynamic, possibly the most dynamic of all surviving Polynesian Art, which to some critics may seem too strong a statement considering the beauty of Maori Art. But being born in New Zealand and having studied it all my life I am acutely aware of the weaknesses of Maori carving caused by Maori carvers dangerous love affair with surface decoration; an attraction that rapidly degraded Maori carving once Europeans introduced steel carving tools. Rapanui or Easter Island is justifiably famous for its art, possibly the most famous of all Polynesian carving thanks to the wonders of the 800 surviving stone Moai. The key word in this statement from an Art History perspective is 'stone', for it is the fact that Easter Island Moai were carved from durable volcanic rock that has allowed their achievments as artists to survive to be appreciatied. Strangely recent research has also raised the issue of dating for Moai kava kava, the strange wooden figures carved in toromiro wood and the idea has been put forward that these are far older than has been previously thought. If this is true then Easter Island perhaps has been an exception to the rule for Pacific indigenous cultures that several hundred years of their art production has survived , with only New Zealand being another case and even then the amount of surviving Maori Achaic Period Art is tiny indeed, and mainly cave or swamp finds.

Of Hawaii it has been generally thought that the vast maority of surviving Hawaiian Art was made around the time of first contact or later. And certainly stylistically there appears to be a consisent style to Hawaiian Art with very little variation. Of carved wooden figures the most famous is probably the three surviving massive breadfruit sculpture of Ku-ka'ili-moku; the God of War erected by King Kamehameha I, unifier of the Hawaiian islands at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century at the great Marae in the Kona district, Hawai'i. This style with its strange head with rows of proections and menacing open mouth is one form and is duplicated in some of the Aumakua or ancestor Gods which can be quite small as with the famous one from the George Ortiz Collection and another in the British Museum. The other style have human heads though all tend to share a dynamic stance often described a a dance stance with flexed knees. The bodies on these sculptures tend to be athletic and muscular with solid calves as is true from life for Polynesians as a people. There is also the issue is surface faceting which probablty began as adzing marks, but grew into a very attractive stylistic feature of Hawaiian carving.

If we compare the Metropolitian Museum's pendant with other Hawaiian figure carvings such as the George Ortiz Aumakua we can see the same muscular body and solid calves but the pendant lacks noticable faceting which could be merely due to its small size. But it is the head and face of the pendant that has no precedent in Hawiian Art and therefor causes a problem that cannot be explained away. Firstly it should be said that the head and face are a magnificent creation totally in keeping with the genius of the pose itself, but are we expected to believe that this creation appeared fully formed out of the head of the carver without any model remotely similar in the surviving body of Hawaiian Art. That would be something near unparalleled in Polynesian Art, but if we look at surviving Maori Art which has possibly the best classified art of a known historical span covering 500 years, newly discovered models are usually one off surviving Arcahic or Transitional Period art.

None of these statements should be thought of as suggesting Polynesian Artists lacked either creativity or originality, but indigenous artists tend to inherit artistic styles and pass them on to the next generation and stylistic change tends to be very slow. Unlike European artists there are no rewards for introducing new styles and no demand for novelty for its own sake. In New Zealand we do not know what caused chances in artistic style though we can be fairly sure it was a slow process. In the period prior to 1500AD when it was thought long range voyaging was common, canoes probably arrived not infrequently from different islands bringing new ideas but generally it is rather the case that old styles arrived and survived and new styles were created, while on home islands creativity gradually ossified. There must be an answer to the originality of the falling man pose of Metropolitan Museum's Hawaiian pedant and an answer to its head and face being so wholly unique. I do however have two more observations to make regarding the head and face. The head is unusually small for a Polynesian carving, for Polynesian carving placed great emphasis on the importance of the head as the source of mana and tapu which almost always creates heads that are oversize. The other is the look on that face. It is unfathomable, slightly goulish and other worldly, the stylistic characteristics that usually indicate representations of dieties in Polynesian carving, whether of Gods or ancestors. All of these points make this Hawaiian pendant not only a great work of art but one of emmense interest for Polynesian Scholars.


Sales Enquires This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Academic, Insitutional and Artist Enquires This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Unfortunately due to being a small institution without paid staff we have no facility to answer general inquiries or comments.