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

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Her financial ambitions were modest. “I like not having much money,” she wrote to her aunt in 1937. “I like the feeling that I charge for my pictures only what I think they are worth and not as much as I could get. It gives me a feeling of great independence and integrity, but it also produces a large amount of inconvenience when I want things that are in the capitalist class—like real estate.” A home of her own, however, came with the publication of her first book in 1942. The following year, she bought a one-bedroom studio in the California coast town of Monterey, a well-known artists’ community. By then she and Warner seem to have gone their separate ways. “Hope you like living alone as much as I do,” Mytinger wrote to a cousin. “I treasure it.” She remained there for the rest of her life.

In her later years Mytinger lived frugally and painted for her own pleasure, traveling occasionally, enjoying her dogs and cats, entertaining friends and tinkering around her house, which was filled with mosaics, handmade furniture and other results of her handiwork. It appears she walked away from her time in the limelight with relief rather than regret. “She hated careerism and galleries and the ego presentation,” says Ina Kozel, a younger artist whom Mytinger befriended. “She definitely was an artist through and through, in her soul and in the way she lived.”

Although Mytinger traveled to Mexico and Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, and drew and painted studies of the local peoples there, she did not keep those pictures. It was the South Seas paintings that she preserved and kept until a few years before she died. And it is no accident that she gave them to an anthropology—not an art—museum.

As early as 1937 she had begun to question the aesthetic quality of her work. “I will never be a real artist,” she wrote to her aunt Caroline. On the evidence of the handful of Mytinger’s stateside portraits that have been located, her self-criticism is not far off the mark. They are workmanlike but a bit anemic, painted with skill but not, perhaps, passion. The paintings from the South Seas, by contrast, are far bolder and more intense, with stunning use of color.

In Headhunting in the Solomon Islands, Mytinger lamented that “though we had set out with the very clear intention of painting not savages but fellow human beings, the natives had somehow, in spite of us, remained strangers, curiosities.” Perhaps that was unavoidable, given the vastness of the cultural divide between the young American and her subjects. Yet her youthful optimism that this gap could be bridged is one reason her island paintings are so powerful.

Another is Mytinger’s recognition that she was recording a world that was vanishing even as she painted it. Her last picture in the series, done in Australia, on the way to Java, depicted an aboriginal burial place, “a nice quiet grave with a solitary figure squatting beside the colorful graveposts,” she wrote. “It was symbolical....For this is the twilight hour for the earth’s exclusive tribes.”

In Mytinger's Footsteps

Photographer Michele Westmorland had traveled to Papua New Guinea many times when a friend of her mother’s pressed a copy of Caroline Mytinger’s book New Guinea Headhunt into her hands in 1994. “As soon as I read the book,” Westmorland says, “I knew that here was a story that needed to be told.”

Determined to retrace Mytinger’s travels, Westmorland began researching the reclusive artist’s life and spent years trying to locate the pictures Mytinger described in the two books she wrote about her South Seas travels. Finally, in 2002, Westmorland happened on a Web site listing the holdings in storage at the University of California’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley. The site, which had gone up just the day before, mentioned 23 paintings by Mytinger.

By then Westmorland had recruited another Seattle-based photographer, Karen Huntt, for the expedition. “When we went to the museum, we said we’d better prepare ourselves, in case the paintings were no good,” says Huntt. “When we saw the first one we had tears in our eyes. It was beautiful, and it was in perfect condition.”


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