Please note that the 1st floor of the GRASSI Museums für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig with the permanent exhibitions Asia and Europe is closed until further notice.

(un)discovered - South Sea

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With its countless islands and archipelagos, the Pacific Ocean served as a projection surface for the “dream of the South Sea” from the age of European expansion between the 15th and early 20th centuries. Tattoo art was referred to in travel accounts of expeditions, such as those by James Cook (1768-1780) or Admiral von Krusenstern (1803-1806). On the skin: The tattoos took the interest of travelers. According to von Krustenstern, the art of puncturing in the Marquesas Islands achieved perfection. The author of "Moby Dick," Herman Melville, who deserted a whaling ship near the Marquesas Islands in 1842, was both fascinated and shocked by the tattoos in his novels. Ethnologists such as Karl von den Steinen, who visited the same island in 1897, described the tattoo craft and the motives in detail out of scientific interest.

Tuschezeichnung / Julius Henninger 1811; Vermerk auf dem Katalogzettel: "Tatuierung, wie solche bei der männlichen Bevölkerung Samoas üblich (...) von J. Henninger in Originalgröße nach dem Leben gezeichnet"

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Through graphical illustrations of the expedition reports, such as those by von Krusenstern’s travel companion, the naturalist and physician Tilesius von Tilenau (1769-1857), Europeans were given a visual idea of tattoos. In light of the aesthetic ideal of classical antiquity, the artist presented tattooed people as unspoiled wild people in paradisiacal landscapes. This image of the "noble savage" influenced the romantic transfiguring image of the Pacific from the 17th up to 19th century and fueled the fantasies and desires of Europeans. What followed was the (often forced) presentation of numerous residents from the Pacific as an exotic spectacle to audiences in so-called “Volkerschauen” and in salons throughout Europe. In turn, tattoos aroused particular attention and inspired tattoo art in Europe through their designs.

In ethnological museums, the numerous material objects of the inhabitants of the Pacific were shown in a similar romanticized context. For example, the two oil paintings by Bruno Geisler (1857-1945) and Hans Jäger (1887-1955), which can be seen in the exhibition and were on display at the Museum of Ethnology Dresden from 1911 until the Second World War, tend to illustrate the "living conditions" as ideals of the "South Pacific". The paintings are based on the photographs also shown here, whose scenes depicted appear far soberer.

At the beginning of the 20th century the sojourn of the Leipzig surveyor Julius Henninger, who served the colonial government in the colony of "German Samoa," resulted in a life-sized ink drawing of a pe'a (the tattoo of the Samoan man) in 1916, which is exhibited here. The preoccupation with tattooing went so far, that German colonial officials, even the governor Erich Schultz-Ewerth (1912-1914), allowed themselves to be tattooed to achieve colonial-strategic goals by appropriating Samoan practices. 

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