In the 1920s, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were among the world’s last wild places. Largely unmapped and inhabited by headhunters and cannibals, the jungle isles of the Coral Sea captured the popular imagination as exemplars of the unknown. Dozens of adventurers took up the challenge posed by these remote lands, but perhaps the least likely were two young American women who set out from San Francisco in 1926 armed with little more than art supplies and a ukulele.
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Caroline Mytinger, a 29-year-old Gibson girl turned society portraitist, undertook the expedition in hopes, she wrote, of realizing her dream of recording “vanishing primitives” with her paints and brushes. She convinced a long-time friend, Margaret Warner, to accompany her on what became a four-year journey throughout the South Seas.
When the two women finally made it back to the United States in the winter of 1929, they were in poor health, but they came bearing treasure: more than two dozen of Mytinger's vivid oils of the region’s peoples, plus dozens of sketches and photographs. The paintings were exhibited at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum and other museums around the country in the 1930s, and during the next decade Mytinger recorded her adventures in two bestselling books illustrated with her artwork.
The recognition Mytinger won proved fleeting, however. She returned to making portraits of society matrons and their children, her books went out of print and her South Seas paintings disappeared into storage. For decades, even well before her death in 1980 at the age of 83, both she and her work had been forgotten by the wider world.
That might still be the case if it weren’t for another pair of adventurous American women. A gift of one of Mytinger’s books in 1994 inspired Seattle-based photographers Michele Westmorland and Karen Huntt to spend several years and raise some $300,000 mounting an expedition to retrace Mytinger’s original South Seas journey.
They also tracked down most of Mytinger’s island paintings, the bulk of which are now housed in the archives of the University of California’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley. Today these pictures evoke the mystery and allure of two distant worlds—the exotic peoples that Mytinger set out to document and the reckless optimism of 1920s America. That era of flappers, flagpole sitters and barnstormers is perhaps the only time that could have produced an expedition at once so ambitious and so foolhardy.
When Mytinger and Warner sailed through the Golden Gate on a foggy day in March 1926, they were unencumbered, Mytinger later wrote, “by the usual equipment of expeditions: by endowment funds, by precedents, doubts, supplies, an expedition yacht or airplane, by even the blessings or belief of our friends and families, who said we couldn’t do it.” They had only $400—“a reserve fund to ‘ship the bodies home,’” as Mytinger put it—and plans to cover expenses by making portraits of local white colonials. The rest of their time would be spent, she said, “headhunting” for native models.
The young women had already used a similar earn-as-you-go method to travel around the United States, with Mytinger bringing in the money by making portraits while Warner entertained the portrait sitters, playing them songs on her ukulele and, Mytinger recounted, “generally keeping everyone awake in the pose.”
When the two adventurers left San Francisco, their goal was to head to the Solomon Islands and then New Guinea, but their low-budget mode of travel dictated a circuitous route that took them first to Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia. Along the way, they snagged as many portrait commissions as they could and hitched free rides on passing boats whenever possible.
Once they reached the Solomons, the women met with what less daring souls might have regarded as excellent reasons to abandon their journey. Mytinger’s case of art supplies fell into the ocean when it was being transferred to a launch bringing them from one Guadalcanal settlement to another. The remoteness of the islands defied Mytinger’s efforts to order replacements, so she had to make do with boat paint and sail canvas. Both women also contracted malaria and fell victim to a host of other tropical ailments, including, Mytinger reported, “jungle rot” and “Shanghai feet,” as well as attacks by cockroaches and stinging ants.