Code: CMMP002

Original Painting: oil on canvas, 43cm x 45cm, circa 1928

‘What makes this young Motuan "flash" …, Australian-pidgin for flashy … in native evaluation is less the precious butterfly in his hair than the wealth displayed in his ornaments. Deep red coral, like the disks in the boy's ear rims, is the rarest and most highly prized, and the fathom of white shell worn as a necklace has an exchange value that even white traders recognize for they will barter European goods for it at so much a foot knowing that if they don't sell it to a collector, they can trade it back to the natives for labor or coconuts for it has a traditional exchange value.

The raw material is abundant enough but grinding hard clam shell into the scores of eighth inch thick disks that go into a fathom of shell "s(h)illings" is a tedious and lengthy process with native tools. The result is that less shell is made now where the natives are shilling conscious, and the old pieces still in the possession of natives have become increasingly valuable for display purposes rather than trade.

For an entomologist the real wealth on parade is the model's butterfly, a lepidopteron, called "bird-winged" because of its great size …. a wing spread up to eight inches … and its resemblance to a bird when in flight. It is found only in the Coral Sea islands and is rarely seen by even the natives. For the colorful male is a high flyer, inhabiting the tops of the tallest trees. It can be trapped when it descends to earth for moisture or when seeking a female which remains in the bushes of the lower levels.

No artist's pigment can equal the brilliance of color of these "flying jewels" because of the surface structure of the wings which are layered, single fashion, with thousands of powdery fine "scales" of varying sizes and shapes. These, which are self colored, catch the light, absorb, shatter and reflect it like a moving prisim [sic]. The slightest motion of the wings projects a different pattern in light wave lengths. No matter how intense the artist's pigment, nor how lumpily he applies it in an effort to simulate the texture of the thing seen, he is still working with mud or chemicals heavy with oil on a dead flat surface and no degree of artistry can recreate the velvety softness and fragility that accompanies the glowing colors of the great tropical butterflies.
The butterflies are captured alive and worn in the hair only so long as they are still fluttering, after which they are discarded.’

Caroline Mytinger, circa 1928

Text © The Phoebe A Hurst Museum of Anthropology and regents of the University of California, Berkley
Image © The Mytinger Project

Image shown is the authorised reproduction print displayed in The Mytinger Project: One World, Two Visions Exhibition

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Caroline Mytinger

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