In the opening years of the twentieth century, European powers complete their colonization of Melanesia as France and England agree to joint sovereignty and government of Vanuatu in 1906. In the same year, Britain transfers control of its holdings in New Guinea to Australia. Following World War I, Australia assumes control of Germany’s holdings in New Guinea and its adjacent islands as well. Apart from these developments, the political status of Melanesia’s archipelagos remains essentially unchanged until after World War II. The first three decades of the twentieth century mark the most intensive period of scientific exploration and collection in Melanesia. Numerous scientific expeditions and hundreds of individual anthropologists, adventurers, and explorers penetrate all but the remotest corners of the region, documenting its indigenous arts and cultures and making vast collections of objects, which are sent to museums and universities in Europe, Australia, and the United States. During the 1920s and ’30s, the growing body of Melanesian art in the West becomes an important influence on the Surrealists, whose haunting otherworldly imagery is, in some cases, directly influenced by Melanesian sculpture.
During World War II, many parts of Melanesia become important locations in the Pacific Theater. Japanese forces occupy New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Britain, New Ireland, Manus, and other islands, while the Allies establish military installations in New Caledonia and Vanuatu. A number of major battles take place on Melanesian islands, including Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, as well as in New Britain and New Guinea. As all of the prewar colonial territories in Melanesia were governed by Allied nations, after the war they are returned to their previous colonial administrations. Substantial movement toward political independence does not begin in earnest until the 1960s. In 1975, the eastern half of New Guinea, together with New Britain, New Ireland, Manus, and the northern Solomon Islands, collectively achieve independence as the nation of Papua New Guinea. The majority of the Solomon archipelago becomes the independent nation of the Solomon Islands in 1978, followed by Vanuatu in 1980. By the close of the century, only western New Guinea, now a province of Indonesia, and New Caledonia, which remains a French possession, are under non-Melanesian governments.
The massive cultural disruptions that occur among indigenous groups throughout Melanesia during the twentieth century frequently have devastating effects on the region’s artistic traditions. In many places, art forms such as wood sculpture dramatically decline or cease altogether as colonial authorities outlaw intergroup warfare, previously an important focus of art and religion for numerous Melanesian peoples. As the century progresses, more and more Melanesians convert to Christianity, neglecting, discarding, and, at times, actively destroying art forms associated with earlier indigenous religions. In some instances, however, local art forms such as songs, dances, and masking traditions become incorporated into Christian ritual and continue to be practiced. The ongoing presence of outsiders, either as residents or temporary visitors, also results in the emergence of an extensive variety of objects produced for sale as curiosities. Most of these are based on earlier sculptural traditions, but some, such as the openwork “storyboards” of the Kambot people of New Guinea, which depict scenes from local oral traditions, represent new forms developed expressly for the foreign market.
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the broader renaissance of indigenous art and culture taking place in other regions of the Pacific, such as Polynesia and Australia, occurs in Melanesia as well. Traditional visual and performing arts that were previously declining or neglected are rejuvenated and rediscovered by new generations of Melanesian artists. Across the region, a series of contemporary art movements also begins to emerge, pioneered by artists such as Mathias Kauage (born 1944) of Papua New Guinea. In 1998, the Tjibaou Cultural Center, the first major institution built primarily to showcase works by contemporary indigenous artists from throughout the Pacific, opens in Nouméa, New Caledonia.
In Western nations, the decades after World War II witness an increasing recognition and celebration of the remarkable achievements of Melanesian artists. As wider appreciation for what is then referred to as “primitive” art develops among both audiences and critics, works from Melanesia are incorporated as part of broader surveys of “primitive” or Oceanic art. However, almost immediately, exhibitions devoted exclusively to Melanesia, such as Human Forms in the Art of Melanesia (1952) in Auckland, New Zealand, or Mélanésie (1954) in Brussels, also begin to take place. These are soon followed by exhibitions devoted to individual or regional artistic traditions. Initially, these more specialized presentations focus almost exclusively on the artistic traditions of New Guinea and include Kunstwerke vom Sepik (1954) in Basel, Switzerland, The Art of Lake Sentani (1959) and Art Styles of the Papuan Gulf (1961) at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, and numerous others. In the 1990s, the first major survey exhibitions of art from New Caledonia (1990) and Vanuatu (1996) take place. Unlike virtually all their predecessors, the two exhibitions are presented in their countries of origin as well as European venues.
Australia assumes administration of British holdings in New Guinea.
Britain and France establish joint rule over Vanuatu, then called the New Hebrides.
Pablo Picasso purchases two New Caledonian wood figures. While African art has a stronger influence on modernist works than that of Oceania, Picasso’s personal collection eventually contains a number of Melanesian works, including a large female effigy from Vanuatu given to him by fellow artist Henri Matisse in the 1950s.
The German Südsee Expedition from Hamburg makes the first substantial collections of art from the Sepik River region in New Guinea as well as objects from New Britain and Manus.
Led by American anthropologist Albert B. Lewis, the Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition from Chicago travels widely in Melanesia, acquiring extensive collections from New Guinea, New Britain, Manus, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, as well as parts of Polynesia.
Swiss anthropologist Felix Speiser (1880–1949) undertakes extensive field research on the arts and cultures of Vanuatu, acquiring important collections of works from Pentecost, Ambrym, Malekula, the Banks Islands, and other areas.
Swiss naturalist and ethnologist Fritz Sarasin (1859–1942) makes two trips to New Caledonia, compiling substantial collections of objects and later writing important works on Kanak art and material culture.
The German Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss Expedition explores and maps the art-rich Sepik River and its tributaries in New Guinea.
British anthropologist John Layard (1891–1974) undertakes extensive research on the art and culture of Malekula and its associated islands in Vanuatu.
Polish-born anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) studies the culture and exchange system of the Trobriand Islands in New Guinea. His resulting books, includingArgonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), remain among the classic studies of anthropology.
Swiss traveler Paul Wirz (1892–1955) is active in New Guinea. Wirz assembles important collections of works from the Sepik River, the Papuan Gulf, and other regions.
Oceanic art, and particularly Melanesian sculpture, becomes an important influence on the Surrealists.
As a result of the German defeat in World War I, Australia’s authority is extended to encompass Germany’s territorial possessions in New Guinea and adjacent islands.
Anthropologist F. E. Williams (1893–1943) makes pioneering studies of art and ritual in the Papuan Gulf region of New Guinea.
Western explorers and prospectors first reach the Highlands of New Guinea.
American aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan take off from Lae in northern New Guinea in their attempt to fly around the world and disappear over the Pacific.
World War II in Melanesia. Japanese forces occupy New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Britain, New Ireland, and Manus. Allied forces establish military installations in New Caledonia and Vanuatu. A number of major battles take place on Melanesian islands, including Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, as well as in New Britain and New Guinea. In 1943, the U.S. torpedo boat PT-109, commanded by future U.S. president John F. Kennedy, is sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands.
The exhibition Arts of the South Seas, including numerous Melanesian works, is presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The exhibition Human Forms in the Art of Melanesia is held at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand.
The exhibition Kunstwerke vom Sepik takes place in Basel, Switzerland, and the exhibitionMélanésie is held in Brussels, Belgium.
Swiss anthropologist Alfred Bühler (1900–1981) makes two major collecting expeditions to the Sepik River in New Guinea and begins to define its major stylistic regions.
The exhibition The Art of Lake Sentani, featuring works from one of western New Guinea’s most distinctive artistic traditions, is held at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York.
The ancient wood sculptures kept in the caves of the upper Karawari River region in New Guinea are discovered and acquired by Western traders.
The exhibition Art Styles of the Papuan Gulf, featuring works from one of New Guinea’s most distinctive artistic traditions, takes place at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York.
Anthropologist Adrian Gerbrands (1917–1997) does research among the Asmat people of New Guinea to document the distinctive styles of eight master wood carvers. Gerbrands’ study is among the first to recognize and acknowledge individual Melanesian artists by name.
The western half of New Guinea becomes a province of Indonesia. Its political status is later affirmed by a highly controversial referendum held in the territory in 1969, in which the vast majority of the indigenous Melanesian population is not permitted to directly participate.
The exhibition Die Kunst Neu-Guineas is held in Basel, Switzerland, and the exhibition The Art of the Asmat, New Guinea opens at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York.
The eastern half of New Guinea achieves independence, together with New Britain, New Ireland, Manus, and the north Solomon Islands, as the nation of Papua New Guinea.
The Solomon Islands achieve independence.
The exhibition The Art of the Pacific Islands, incorporating numerous works from Melanesia, is held at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Vanuatu achieves independence.
Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu establish the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a regional organization that addresses shared political, economic, and cultural issues.
Rebels on Bougainville, an island in the northern Solomon Islands that is politically part of Papua New Guinea, begin an armed struggle for independence. Fighting continues until a formal ceasefire is declared in 1998.
De jade et de nacre: Patrimoine artistique Kanak, the first major exhibition devoted to New Caledonia’s indigenous artistic traditions, opens in Nouméa and travels to Paris the following year.
Contemporary master carvers from the Sepik River in New Guinea create a series of carved poles for the New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University in California.
Vanuatu Océanie: Arts des îles de cendre et de corail, the first major exhibition of Vanuatu’s indigenous arts, opens in Basel, Switzerland, and travels to Paris, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia.
The Tjibaou Cultural Center, showcasing works by contemporary artists from throughout the Pacific, opens in New Caledonia.
“Melanesia, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=ocm (October 2004)