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A Gibson Girl in New Guinea

Two Seattle women have retraced the intrepid travels of model and portrait artist Caroline Mytinger, who journeyed to the South Sea islands in the 1920s to capture "vanishing primitives" on canvas

By then, Mytinger’s marriage appears to have ended, although no record has been found that she and Stober ever divorced. She apparently traveled under the name of Mrs. Caroline Stober, which is perhaps why Warner was the recipient of at least five proposals from lonely South Seas colonials, while Mytinger doesn’t mention receiving any herself. She never married again, but she kept a letter from Stober, undated, that reads in part, “Dear wife and darling girl.... If I have been selfish it has been because I have been unable to suppress my emotions and did not want you away from me.” Some seven years after Mytinger returned from New Guinea, she wrote to her aunt Caroline that she had left her husband “not because he was a disagreeable person, but because...I would never live in the conventional groove of matrimony.”

The long letters Mytinger wrote to friends and family during her travels in the South Seas formed the basis of her two books. Headhunting in the Solomon Islands was published in 1942, just as those islands became suddenly famous as the site of fierce fighting between U.S. and Japanese troops. Mytinger’s true-life adventure story was named a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Her second book, New Guinea Headhunt, came out in 1946, also to excellent reviews. “New Guinea Headhunt,” wrote a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “is top-of-the-best-seller-list reading for the unexpected incidents in it that are the stuff of first-rate narration.” More than half a century later, her two volumes remain captivating reading, thanks to her lively descriptions of the people and places she and Warner encountered. But some of Mytinger’s language, while all too common in her own time, strikes an ugly note today. Her use of terms such as “darky” and “primitive” and her references to children as “pickaninnies” will make modern readers cringe.

Yet she also cast a critical eye on white exploitation of local labor (men were typically indentured for stretches of three years on both coconut and rubber plantations for wages of just $30 a year) and on the affectations required to uphold “white prestige.” Despite white settlers’ complaints about the “primitives’” savagery and stupidity, Mytinger wrote that she found them “polite and clean, and certainly far from stupid. That we could not understand their kind of intelligence did not prove that it did not exist and was not equal to our own in its own way.”

Some of Mytinger’s most challenging encounters came as she and Warner searched for models among peoples who had no concept of portraiture and considerable suspicions about what the two foreigners might be up to. Mytinger describes a “raw swamp woman” named Derivo who had been drafted to serve as housemaid to the Americans during their visit to a remote station along the Fly River. They convinced her to pose in her short grass skirt and palm-leaf hood, virtually the only clothing native women wore in that rainy country. But Derivo became increasingly fidgety and unhappy, and it finally came out, Mytinger wrote, that the woman believed “this painting business was making her legs sick.” No sooner had Derivo stopped posing, the picture unfinished, than she was bitten on the buttocks by a poisonous snake. She recovered, Mytinger reported, but the “episode put us in bad odor in the community, and for a while we could get no other woman to pose for the unfinished figure.”

The same Fly River station also produced Mytinger’s favorite model, a headhunter named Tauparaupi, whose portrait is on the cover of the artist’s second book (p. 80). He was brought to her as part of a group that had been taken prisoner by the authorities for allegedly beheading and eating 39 members of a neighboring village. Two other sitters were the protagonists in a Papuan tragedy. One painting showed a pretty girl named Ninoa being readied for a ceremonial dance by her mother, who carried the girl’s tiny baby on her back. Another canvas depicted two young men smoking a native pipe. One of the men was the father of Ninoa’s baby, but he refused to marry her and, worse, publicly laughed at her while she was being painted. She left and hanged herself in one of the huts, not out of sorrow but to revenge herself by haunting her disloyal lover. Shortly thereafter, Mytinger wrote, “Ninoa let him have it” when the young man was seriously injured in an accident.

Mytinger often captured details beyond the reach of the era’s black-and-white photography—the colors of a massive feather headdress, the subtleties of full-body tattooing and the bright stripes dyed into the women’s grass skirts. At the same time, her renderings gave full expression to her models’ humanity. But some of Mytinger’s depictions are not entirely sound from an anthropological point of view. For example, while painting a young New Guinea man with elaborate decorative scarring on his back, Mytinger, using pidgin English and sign language, invited him to adorn himself with appropriate items from the local museum. Long after the portrait was completed, she learned that the hat the man had chosen to wear came from a district other than his own and that the pink-and-blue-painted shield he held was actually from New Britain Island. “After that discovery,” Mytinger concluded, “the only thing we could be sure was authentic in the picture was the hide of the boy himself.”

Moreover, Mytinger’s style and training made a certain amount of idealization of her subjects all but inevitable. A surviving photograph of two of Mytinger’s New Guinea subjects, an older man nicknamed Sarli and his younger wife, reveals marked disparities between the woman’s pinched and disheveled appearance in the photo and her painted countenance. (Sadly, both soon died from a strain of influenza carried to their village by the crew of a visiting American freighter.)

After three years in the tropics, Mytinger and Warner were ready for home. But they had only enough money to get to Java, where they lived for almost a year, rebuilding their health while Mytinger repainted her pictures with real oil paints. Finally a job doing illustrations brought in enough money to get them both back to the United States.

Not long after the two women arrived in Manhattan, the city’s American Museum of Natural History exhibited Mytinger’s paintings. “Glowing with rich hues, vigorously and surely modeled,” wrote a critic for the New York Herald Tribune, “these paintings reveal, as no flat black-and-white photographs could, the actual gradations in the color of hair, eyes and skin of the various South Sea Island tribes...and the vividness of their decorations and natural backgrounds.” The pictures next went on display at the Brooklyn Museum and then traveled to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art. Newspaper reporters eagerly wrote up the story of Mytinger’s expedition, but the country was deep in an economic depression and no museum offered to buy the pictures. “The paintings are still orphaned at the Los Angeles Museum,” Mytinger wrote to her aunt Caroline in 1932. “Sometime when the finances of the art buying public are restored to normalcy, I may be able to get something for them—but I know it isn’t possible now.”

Mytinger resumed her career as an itinerant portraitist, traveling to Louisiana, Iowa, Ohio, Washington—wherever commissions could be found. Sometimes a local museum showed her South Seas paintings, but by the 1940s she had packed the pictures away. Some of Mytinger’s clients were prominent—members of the Weyerhaeuser timber dynasty, the flour company Pillsburys, novelist Mary Ellen Chase, whose Mytinger portrait still hangs in one of the libraries at Smith College in Massachusetts—but most were not. “I’m not writing and not painting,” Mytinger’s 1932 letter continued, “just pounding out these small drawings for which I charge twenty-five dollars—and being grateful for orders.”

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