THE nine 20-foot-high people poles stand majestically looking through the great slanted glass window at Central Park. The Mbis, as the poles are called, have lost non of their power by being transported from their people, the Asmats of New Guinea.
In the just-opened Michael C. Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you encounter things that seem to be far more than an artistically carved piece of wood or a cleverly crafted sheet of bronze. You want to turn around quickly and look back to see if you can catch them in motion. You know they are whispering with one another. No doubt, they walk -- and likely leap.
The 1,500 objects on display -- from Africa, Oceania and the Americas -- were considered not for their ethnological or historical interest, but simply for their beauty.
A 35-foot-long canoe launches the visitor on a stream of imagination. The masks of fiber, bone and hair from several continents and many islands frighten the unwary. The gold jewelry is enough to drive a miser mad. The stone and wood effigies will stand no disrespect.
The consideration of the work as art, not artifact, by the Metropolitan Museum is a major event in the way we view artistic expression. This presentation represents a major turnaround by the museum (which once refused the collection) and should be a strong influence on art galleries throughout the world.
The recent blockbuster traveling exhibits of Chinese and Egyptian art, especially, have helped pave the way. Art experts are learning what the vast majority of people have always sensed: a useful object -- a boat or a necklace or a pitcher -- can be just as much a work of art as a painting or sculpture, which was made only to be admired.
The wing itself is a totem, a memorial to the young Rockefeller, the son of Nelson and Mary Rockefeller. He lost his life in 1961 while on an expedition to gather articles for his collection.
The feeling of power possessed, of mysterious motives, of magical meaning, is true of most of the objects in the immense wing, which opened last Wednesday.Douglas Newton, chairman of the museum's ill-named Department of Primitive Art, admits that he, too, feels the forces still contained in these works. "They were made by artists as magicians or perhaps priests. The artist saw visions and transposed them into wood, bone, and brass. Most were made not to worship but as containers of supernatural power. The power could be summoned and if it became dangerous, as sometimes it did, it could be sent away.
"Even though we of the West don't understand the meaning of the works, we can feel their life-spirits."
The 42,000-square-foot exhibition hall is the twin of the Egyptian hall at the other end of the building. The masterful design is by architects Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates with Arthur Rosenblatt, the Metropolitan's vice president for architecture and planning.
The interior, designed by Stuart Silver and Clifford LaFontaine, is planned not to call attention to itself, but to the objects.
"For instance," Silver said, in a walk through the gallery last week, "Nelson Rockefeller had wanted to cover the big wall facing the window with a huge mural of a photograph made by his son of the original setting of the Mbis. But we think he was beginning to see our point -- that such a stage set would detract from the understanding of the Mbis as art."
The diverse objects are largely housed in glass cases set against an off-white linen, which serves to unify. The bases contain silicone gel to guard against moisture. Most valuable of all: 150 text blocks and 1,500 labels, which set each object in its context.
The Oceania section is given the place of honor, the 56-foot-high room with the window on the world. The largest segement of Oceania is the New Guinea collection, especially of art of the Asmat people, collected by Michael Rockefeller at the cost of his life. Newton, who has been to New Guinea himself seven times, is especially fond of this area.
The Mbis poles dominate the midsection. To the Asmats, death did not come by accident or nature. It came from the enemy, another headhunter or a witch doctor. When the village suffered a number of deaths, there was no help for it but to mount a great feast and ritual to both honor those who had paddled their canoe to the afterworld and to rouse the warriors to take revenge.
First they would carve the great poles, canoe-like forms with a phallic symbol in a wing-like openwork projection, and other hunting and fertility images. The poles would stand in front of the men's house to form the rallying point for a mock battle between men and women. Then the headhunters would go forth to collect their dreadful booty. On their return, they would mount the heads atop the poles. After they had eaten their victory feast, they would abandon the poles in the jungle, representing the journey of the dead to the after world where they would be expected to do what they could to help the living who had sent them off in such style.
A 35-foot-long canoe, from the Irian jaya tribe of the Asmat, is carved with a portrait of the sister of the carver. A reclining figure memorializes a young man eaten by the enemy.
"Of course, many of these objects are bloodstained," said Newton. "But in many ways they are less horrible than the European paintings of the 15th century where you see saints being skinned alive or having their gizzard cut out. Europe had 200 years of hanging, drawing and disembodying in public. And when you think of the torture that still goes on in the 20th century, who can say we are less barbaric?"
The pre-Columbian art seems far more sophisticated. It is refined, mannered, clearly with a long tradition behind it. Giles Constable, director of Dumbarton Oaks which itself owns a splendid collection of pre-Columbian, disputes its inclusion with the African and Oceania work. Speaking last week at the Women's National Democratic Club, he said, "I am amazed that the Metropolitan consideres pre-Columbian art as 'primitive.' "
Most of the outstanding pieces come from Peru. The gold objects are the most riveting, arousing avarice as they always have. A gold mask, from the Peruvian Chimu empire (1200-1400 A.D.) was originally painted with brilliant reds. Its eyes are not only piercing, but pierced (with objects which look like olives on a stick) and teeth that dangle from the mouth below the fierce nose.
To anyone who has visited the magnificent museum in Mexico City, the Mexican objects will seem less than impressive, though a Maya stela is a masterpiece, and the Olmec babies, especially the fat one with his finger in his mouth, are irresistible.
Newton came to his specialization through his interest in modern art. "You couldn't help but be aware that African art was an important part of modern art," he says. In his excellent book, "Masterpieces of Primitive Art," Newton points out that artists began to be interested in and influenced by African art in 1903-1904 when, according to legend, the Fauvist painter Vlaminck bought drinks all around in return for the two African figures standing on the bar. Later Matisse and Picasso acquired major collections of African art.
In the Rockefeller wing, the African art is very strong and often very beautiful. A 16th-century saltcellar carved in Africa for export to Portugal takes its motifs from the Benin court ivories, yet is a wonderful depiction of European figures.
The African masks are extraordinary works of genius -- the ivory masks of the Bini of Nigeria, for example. The brass heads from Benin are marvelously made with great attention to the chief's regalia. In the bronze plaque from a Benin palace of the 16th to the 17th century, a ruler rides a horse, supported by two minions and fanned by two others while what looks like a small child tags along. Another figure from Zaire shows a man riding an agreeable-looking dog.
Nelson Rockefeller, writing in the introduction to the Newton book, said that he first became interested in art because of his mother, an early collector of African sculpture. He cited the explanation of African art by Gertrude Stein who wrote of Picasso that ". . . with the excption of some African sculpture, no one had ever tried to express things seen not as one knows them but as they are when one sees them without remembering having looked at them."
Wrote Rockefeller: "The first primitive art that I collected personally was a beautiful and simple wooden bowl which I found in Hawaii on a trip around the world in 1930. I couldn't resist it -- and I still get great satisfaction from the shape of the bowl, the grain of the wood, and the warm, soft patina that came from centuries of loving care."
Rockefeller related that he tried in the '30s to interest the Metropolitan in primitive art but they were not interested. So he organized exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art of African, Mexican, South Sea and Andean sculpture. With Rene' d'Harnoncourt he collected primitive art. They set up the Museum of Primitive Art in the spring of 1957.
Rockefeller still was stung by the indifference of classical art museums toward the art of two-thirds of the world's surface. He felt that the art needed the recognition of the Metropolitan. Finally, in the late '60s, he and d'Harnoncourt persuaded the Metropolitan to do an exhibit of the collection. Just before the show opened, Brooke Astor, another trustee, threw her enthusiasm and persuasian on Rockefeller's side, and the collection was accepted in 1969.
Tragically, d'Harnoncourt and Michael Rockefeller died before the Metropolitan took the collection and Nelson Rockefeller died before the wing opened.
Still, their vision has given the world a wider view of beauty. Picture 1, The new Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, By Richard Timothy Conroy for The Washington Post; Pictures 2 through 4, A 19th century mask from Papua New Guinea; a gold pendant from Colombia, c. 600-1200 A.D.; and a ceramic figure from Mexico, c. 1100-1000 B.C. Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection.