A supreme god

28th November 2003 at 00:00
John Reeve looks at how a piece of medieval Polynesian art shaped the work of famous artists and writers

Some museum objects develop lives of their own once they have been uprooted from their place of origin. This wooden figure is a good example.

Superficially, it is no more remarkable than any number of figures from the ethnography collections of the British Museum. This one, however, caught the eye of famous artists and inspired a poem that has recently been displayed on the London Underground in celebration of the museum's 250th anniversary.

This is the figure of the god A'a, from Rurutu in the Austral Islands of French Polynesia. It is 117 centimetres tall and was presented to members of the London Missionary Society in 1822 by islanders who had been converted to Christianity. Other symbols of the islanders' religion were also presented, but the missionaries must have been struck by this one, because they singled it out for attention.

The figure was brought back to Britain and used as a visual aid by missionaries as they travelled around the country talking about their work and encouraging people to help fund further missionary work. It was evidence of what "pagan" people did without western religion, just as their cultures and art were regarded as "primitive" by western standards.

This is precisely what appealed to artists about pieces such as this. The figure was sold to the British Museum in 1911, at a time when non-European art was attracting the attention of artists in Paris, London and elsewhere.

Chinese, Indian and then Japanese art had been displayed in western museums for a century or more.

Now, though, artists such as Pablo Picasso had become excited about African art, whose influence is clear in works like "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York). Paul Gauguin was attracted to Polynesian and Indonesian art. Pieces like this and strong, often gigantic, Egyptian sculptures also appealed to Constantin Brancusi and Amedeo Modigliani.

After the First World War, a young art student from Yorkshire started to roam around the British Museum, drawing what he was supposed to (Greek art, such as the Parthenon sculptures), but also what wasn't in the curriculum - early Greek art from the Cyclades. The student became the world-famous sculptor Henry Moore and years later he wrote about the impact that A'a and other sculptures from all over the world had had on him: "Nine-tenths of my knowledge and understanding of sculpture has come from the British Museum.

The excitement of this piece comes from its sense of life-force, with all those small figures springing from the parent figure."

He notes the "thinness and razor-sharpness of the jaw" and the little figures "scattered all over the body like frogs jumping from a poolI not stuck on, butI all part of the same piece of wood - a remarkable technical achievement."

Another museum visitor in the 1930s also spotted this same piece in the ethnography gallery, crowded with objects from around the world. The poet William Empson was probably using what is now the British Library, which used to be housed in the British Museum's Bloomsbury building. His poem "Homage to the British Museum" begins:

"There is a Supreme God in the ethnological section; A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.

He needs his belly to include the Pantheon, Which is inserted through a hole behind."

Twenty-four little figures had been found inside the surviving sculpture, but all of them had been destroyed by the time it reached the museum. There are no written records to explain what happened and no anthropologists were on hand to tease out information from the islanders. One interpretation suggests that the little figures represented the different kinship groups on the island, but we will never know if that is true.

All the more scope then for the poet's imagination:

"Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities, His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world ."

William Empson's writing reflects a loss of confidence in the superiority of western values:

"Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations And dissolve in to our judgement all their codes...

Let us stand here and admit that we have no road."

John Reeve is a freelance education consultant


Activities for all key stages

Visit the newly opened Wellcome Trust Gallery at the British Museum in London. The first of its exhibitions explore the theme of living and dying through objects from Mexico, Bolivia, North America, Africa, the Bay of Bengal, the Pacific Ocean and Easter Island. To find out more and to check out its online collection of some 5,000 objects visit


Many other museums have objects like the carved figure of A'a, including the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the Horniman Museum in London and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. The last combines modern western art by artists such as Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Henry Moore with fine and applied art from Africa, the Pacific, Asia, medieval Europe, and other periods and parts of the world.

Other museums which have similar collections include the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Ipswich Museum, Liverpool Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

KS34 sculpture

Think of other ways to depict fertility through figure sculpture. How is it shown in Christian and Asian religious art?

Create a companion piece for this figure that represents destruction and disaster. You might want to draw objects that are currently relevant to our culture, or create a montage using newspaper cuttings and other images.

From museum websites, select a small number of non-European art pieces that are similar to the figure of A'a and curate your own online exhibition around themes such as fertility or living and dying.

KS34 writing

Select a museum object or painting that intrigues you and write a short poem about it.

What poems would you like to see on the London Underground or on public transport that you use?

Write a piece in which a museum object tells its life story. Curator Dr Irving Finkel does this in The Lewis Chessmen - What Happened to Them? (British Museum Press, out of print)

Poetry resources

William Empson's poem "Homage to the British Museum" is part of the Poems on the Underground poster series, which is available from The Poetry Society

Tel: 020 7420 9880


London Transport Museum

Tel: 020 7379 6344

The latest edition of Poems on the Underground (Cassell pound;14.99) is available from the London Transport Museum's website (www.ltmuseum.co.uk).

Some of the poems can be found by visiting the "FAQ links" section of the London Underground site (www.thetube.com).

The Poetry Library is also well worth a visit (www.poetrylibrary.org.uk).

Sculpture resources

A good place to start is A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming (Laurence King pound;22.40). Chapter 18 discusses Pacific art, illustrates the A'a sculpture and introduces Primitivism.

Primitivism and Modern Art (World Art) by Colin Rhodes (Thames and Hudson pound;6.36) is an excellent and wide-ranging book.

"Primitivism" in 20th-century Art, edited by William Rubin, offers more in-depth information about artists (Museum of Modern Art pound;34.47).

Many useful books are out of print, but can be found in libraries. Good introductions for schools include Sculpture by Mary-Jane Opie (Dorling Kindersley), The Story of Sculpture by Francesca Romei (Macdonald Young Books) and The Secrets of Sculpture by Louisa Somerville (Kingfisher).

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