Some sculpture-anthropology relations: reading the agency of Franz Boas and Lev Sternberg

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This article deliberates arguments for sculpture being considered ‘the most anthropological of the arts’. After introducing British contentions for the anthropological aspect of sculpture (Barlow, Gell, Ades and Bunn), it then applies, not without a hint of irony, the concept to sculpture specifically made for anthropological and ethnographic museums, using examples instigated by Franz Boas and Lev Sternberg (for the United States National Museum in the 1890s and the Kunstkamera in the 1910s). Hence mannequins and copies of Kwakiutl and pre-Hispanic Andean ritual figures (living and carved) are, respectively, explored. Correlations with associated acquisitions are made, e.g. Nivkh and Kadiwéu wood carvings, these involving their contemporary analysis by Voldemārs Matvejs and Alberto Vojtěch Frič. Particular attention is paid to Sternberg’s commission of concrete copies of the San Agustín megaliths from Karl Theodor Stoepel. The subsequent placement of these in the Kunstkamera courtyard is probed in terms of potential altered meanings, identity and agency. Thereafter the enquiry moves to examination of the ‘sculpted anthropologist’, again using Boas and Sternberg as case studies. Ultimately, through the combination of these two distinct and direct anthropological sides of sculpture, a restricted case is made for the plastic art’s anthropological identity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)140-156
Number of pages17
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


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