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On display on Level 2

Sentani people Double figure [Lake Sentani figures; Le Lys [The lily]] 19th century Place made: Khabitorou village (also known as Ifar Besar), Central Lake Sentani, Papua, Indonesia Melanesia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, figurines, wood carved
Dimensions: 177.2 h x 49.5 w x 19.1 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1974
Accession No: NGA 74.214
Provenance:
  • collected in situ by Jacques Viot in 1929;
  • with Galerie Pierre Loeb, Paris;
  • from whence purchased by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), London, probably in the mid-1930s;
  • with Gustave Schindler, New York, by 1966;
  • from whom purchased, through Gaston de Havenon, by the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, April 1974

These male and female figures, with their pointed faces, pronounced chins and slender limbs, are characteristic of art from the central north coast of West Papua. In figurative art from this region, the depiction of gender differences can be quite subtle. In this instance the distinctions have been further eroded by time and water. It is the sublime beauty of the figures that led Douglas Newton, art historian and adviser to the National Gallery of Australia in the 1970s, to claim the figures as the most beautiful sculpture from the Pacific.

In 1929 the sculpture was dredged from Lake Sentani, where an old ceremonial house had collapsed. The huge and remote lake is surrounded by hills and is some 12 kilometres from the nearest shoreline in West Papua. Sentani people traditionally lived in communal dwellings that were built over the water and supported by tall, carved wooden poles that protruded through the floor into the living area above. These figures would have sat at the top of one such pole.

This sculpture was known to the Surrealists, who gave it the personal name of ‘the lily’. It has also been considered the inspiration for Max Ernst’s sculpture Les asperges de la lune [Lunar asparagus] 1935. Presumably Ernst saw it at a commercial gallery in Paris after 1929.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

These male and female figures, with their pointed faces, pronounced chins and slender limbs, are characteristic of art from the central north coast of West Papua. The depiction of gender differences in figurative art from this region can be quite subtle. In this instance the distinctions have been further eroded by time and water. It is the sublime beauty of the figures that led Douglas Newton, Pacific art adviser to the National Gallery of Australia in the 1970s, to claim them as the most beautiful sculpture from the Pacific.

In 1929 French Surrealist Jacques Viot dredged the sculpture from Lake Sentani, where an old ceremonial house had collapsed. This huge, remote lake is surrounded by hills and about 12 kilometres from the nearest shoreline in West Papua. Sentani people traditionally lived in communal dwellings that were built over the water and supported by tall, carved wooden poles that protruded through the floor into the living area above. These figures would have sat at the top of one such pole.

This sculpture was well known to the Surrealists, who gave it the personal name of Le Lys—The Lily. It was photographed by Man Ray and has also been considered the inspiration for Max Ernst’s sculpture Les asperges de la lune [Lunar asparagus] 1935. For many years it was part of sculptor Jacob Epstein’s collection of non-western art.

Crispin Howarth, Curator Pacific Arts


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014