Book Review: “Collecting New Guinea Art: Douglas Newton, Harry Beran, Thomas Schultze-Westrum”. Edited by Michael Hamson, text by Virginia-Lee Webb, Harry Beran, Michael Hamson and Thomas Schultze-Westrum. Collections photographed by Aaron Fallon. Published by Michael Hamson Oceanic Art, hard cover, 224 pages. Price US$45 plus mailing. Orders: email@example.com
Michael Hamson’s previous catalogues have concentrated on specific cultural style areas (the Boiken, the Papuan Gulf, West Sepik and Massim), but his latest, “Collecting New Guinea Art”, marks a change of direction.
It examines the motivations and achievements of three well known 20th Century collectors. Douglas Newton, who died in 2001, was the Director of Nelson Rockefeller’s Museum of Primitive Art and, finally, Curator Emeritus of its successor the Met, and is
probably better known as an art historian and prolific author and exhibition creator than as field collector. Harry Beran, author and curator, is an academic philosopher and dedicated private collector of Massim art who once owned the world’s most representative private collection from this area. Thomas Shultze-Westrum is an academic writer and film producer on culture and zoology who, as a self-appointed preserver and protector of a disappearing culture, assembled one of the world’s largest private collections of Papuan Gulf material.
The book is divided into three parts, and each opens with an illustrated essay on a specific collector, followed by a selection of 20 – 40 objects collected by him which have been beautifully photographed for this book by Aaron Fallon.
In this process, a fourth collector is revealed, namely John Friede, who owns or owned all of these pieces as part of a private collection that was never part of the original the De Young gift. This book
therefore documents artworks in John and Marcia Friede’s private collection which have not been published before. Some of these artworks are currently offered for sale by Michael Hamson, and they are identified in the book and on his website.
The first section, on Douglas Newton, is written by Virginia-Lee Webb, who worked with him in the Rockefeller era and knew him well. It is written with a great deal of affection, not only setting out his achievements, but also communicating the insatiable curiosity and interest in unusual objects that drove him. He made 5 trips to PNG during the 1960s and 70s and later said that “Being on the Sepik in the 1960s was the best time of my life.” Newton’s knowledge of New Guinea art was, of course, vast, but his personal collecting seemed to be both informal and eclectic – he bought pieces that pleased him, often stone carved, and he was as likely to buy them at auctions or from dealers as he was to field collect them in New Guinea.
Harry Beran, who contributes his own introductory chapter, is a philosopher by training and an academic by trade. Impeccably rational, his dedication to collecting Massim art exclusively is an object lesson for every compulsive collector whose collection has grown out of control. Beran’s collection of 800+ objects, probably the largest private Massim art collection in the 20thcentury, was orderly, analysed and studied, but he was also touched by the emotional side
of collecting. His many field trips, hopefully ongoing as his researches continue, are a highlight of his life, as are his enduring relationships with individual islanders. He recalls, for example, how touched he was to meet and talk with Kanamweya, a famous kula canoe carver on Gawa island, because this master craftsman held his hand throughout the conversation as a traditional gesture of acceptance and friendship.
Michael Hamson, who wrote the introduction to Thoman Shultze Westrum’s collection probably had the most difficult section of the three to write – for Shultze Westrum, who currently lives on a Greek Island, is a complex and enigmatic figure driven by a deep commitment to the survival of cultures – one is not surprised to learn that he completed his education in a monastery. He had, and still has, a wide-ranging interest in cultural survival and zoology as well as film making. When he encountered the art of the Papuan gulf as a young man, he did so at a time when its survival was under threat through the relentless onslaught of evangelical Christianity. By the late 1950s and
early 1960s, the men’s houses were either burned down, or deserted and their contents left to rot. Shultze Westrum perceived an urgent need to buy as much as he could and build up a major personal collection as a culture bank. His dedication was so complete, he underwent tribal initiation to gain the knowledge to become a keeper of traditional religious art and he was implicitly trusted by the old men who kept the secrets and wanted to preserve the objects. As a bonus, this section includes three short papers by Shultze-Westrum. The first is on materials, techniques and the artists; the second on Kerewo agibe (skull racks); and the third on bullroarers, and all three include his own field photographs.
These three collectors are very different, but they had three things in common. First, they all more or less fell into New Guinea art by accident. Newton abandoned African art after a
London dealer showed him some photographs in a book by Chauvet, an encounter that must have motivated him to apply for a junior curator’s job when the Museum of Primitive art first opened. Harry Beran bought his first piece, a Dobu Island splashboard, on a holiday in PNG in 1969, and then started buying more pieces at Sydney tribal art auctions. Shultze Westrum was doing field research on a rare turtle in the Papuan Gulf when he became aware of the beauty of the art and the fact that it was dying out –and decided that the best way to save it it from rotting men’s houses and the flames of the militant apostolic churches was to record its stories and get it safely out of PNG.
Second, none of them did it for the money. Newton bought a few pieces for his own pleasure on his official visits to PNG and many items in his small collection were purchased at auctions or from dealers – usually quirky things that he liked. Harry Beran built up an impressive collection on an academic’s salary, but he bought very carefully, sold judiciously and knew many retired officials and missionaries. He often shared his expertise with field collectors and enthusiasts in return for a share of the objects collected on joint field trips, or bought and sold non-Massim pieces in Sydney to finance the pieces he wanted to buy.
Shultze-Westrum toowould partner with European museums, or sell pieces he had collected to finance his field studies or film making interests and he was a shrewd dealer – Hamson relates how he negotiated the purchase of an entire Pacific collection of the German Sacred Heart religious order, kept the Papuan objects he wanted and sold the rest to finance his ongoing projects. At the same time, his focus was on preserving the significant Papuan Gulf objects in his own collection, not finding and selling them.
Third, all three collections were ultimately purchased by John Freide. Friede had a tremendous respect and affection for Douglas Newton, whom he described as ‘a dear friend and mentor’ in the introduction to his book on the Jolika Collection and he valued the opportunity to acquire Newton’s private collection from his estate. For the Shultze-Westrum and Beran Collections, more practically, he was probably the only private collector in the world who could buy them complete and preserve them at a time when it suited them to sell.
Shultze-Westrum’s was one of the first major collections purchased by Friede – who bought almost 1,200 pieces from him in 1980 following four years of negotiations. Shultze-Westrum sold because he and his wife had divorced and Thomas , who had kept the
private collection, had nowhere to keep it . Twenty five years later, in 2005, Friede bought Harry Beran’s collection at a time when Harry wanted to retire from academic life, move to England and devote himself to writing and research on Massim art. For both these collectors, the decision to sell was prompted in part by their desire to keep their collections as intact as possible. Sadly, the original plan to keep the collections intact at the De Young went off the rails and many artworks have been sold, but no one would regret this more than John Friede.
Collecting histories and collections tend to fade from public view over time, especially after they have been incorporated into larger collections, where they are often often hidden in storage, or completely split up and sold. This book not only provides a permanent record of the achievements of these three highly respected collectors, but also generously gives us an opportunity to share the images and histories of almost 100 objects, almost all of which are in John and Marcia Friede’s private collection.
*All artworks in this article photographed by Aaron Fallon and owned by the John & Marcia Friede Clollection
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