This fine Easter Island figure from the collection of British artist Sir Jacob Epstein is of a rare type known as moai tangata. Kjellgren (2007: 319) notes that these naturalistic male figures are characterized by "their enlarged heads, strictly frontal orientation, prominent stomachs, and arms extended down the sides, [and] bear the closest formal resemblance to the island's familiar stone figures." Twenty-first century scholarship has enhanced our understanding of the classifications of Easter Island wood sculpture, and Catherine and Michel Orliac's 2008 study Treasures of Easter Island provides detailed tallies of the surviving number of each form of wooden figure, limiting their count to those undoubtedly created before 1880. Distinct from the emaciated, skeletal, and comparatively common moai kavakava, the moai tangata is one of the rarest forms, representing just 3% of known anthropomorphous wood statuettes from Easter Island with only 10 examples known (Orliac and Orliac 2008: 132).
The quality of the Epstein figure places it among the finest of these figures: it is closely comparable to examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. "1984.526"; see fig. 1), and the Musée du Louvre, Paris (Musée du Quai Branly, inv. no. "70.2000.1.1 D"; see fig. 2).
An old crack through the proper right ankle of the Epstein figure is pierced perpendicularly for binding, a technique used in the absence of adhesive and evidence of a "native repair" which was carried out in situ. This effort reveals the importance of this sacred object to its original Rapa Nui owners.
Kjellgren (2007: 320) continues: "[moai tangata] likely portray ancestors or other powerful supernatural beings, and they may have been venerated as part of family or individual religious observances. Possibly representing family ancestors, some moai tangata, although their features are conventionalized, may have been intended to portray specific individuals."
The decoration on the cranium closely relates to Easter Island petroglyphs; a raised ring is centered on the lumbar region.
Domestic Goat & Chilean Abalone, wood
The Arts Council of Great Britan, London, The Epstein Collection of Primitive and Exotic Sculpture, March 25 - April 23, 1960
Height: 16 3/4 in (42.5 cm)
William Fagg, The Epstein Collection of Primitive and Exotic Sculpture, London, 1960, no. 216
Ezio Bassani and Malcolm D. McLeod, Jacob Epstein Collector, Milan, 1989, pp. 49, fig. 63, and 153, no. 584
Sir Jacob Epstein, London
Christie's London, December 15, 1961, lot 165
Carlo Monzino, Castagnola
Sotheby's Paris, December 5, 2003, lot 63
Acquired by the present owner at the above auction