Dr Harry Beran was born in Vienna in 1935 and migrated to Australia in 1957. He obtained his PhD from the University of Sydney in 1974 and taught philosophy at the University of Wollongong until his retirement in 1998. Harry was a frequent visitor to Papua New Guinea and wrote numerous publications on its art. In particular he was a scholar, author and collector specialising in the Massim culture of Milne Bay Province - KJ
PARIS, FRANCE – We have lost a treasure, a library, a friend.
Early one morning in Cambridge, England, Harry Beran left us to go study the ancestors on that little island just beyond the horizon where we cannot see him anymore.
Little do the spirits there know what awaits them.
Harry will show up on the beach climbing out of the dinghy, his pants wet to the knees, walk up to the first village and set about recording their habits, cataloguing their objects, asking insistent questions about the way the vernacular word for each thing is pronounced.
He will photograph their entire ethnography, ask 20 different people how they make or use or name the very same item, and finally in his very slow, precise manner and putting extra space and thought between each word, he will ask them, “Do you have any lime spatulas?”
But he will also juggle and play cat’s cradle for the children and pitch pennies with the men on the wharf.
He will share with them his stock of canned beef and Spam and distribute plexiglass blanks so that they can carve them into his beloved lime spatulas.
I met Harry Beran through another dear departed friend, Anthony (Toby) Jack, late of London.
Toby wrote to me one day that a correspondent of his had a question Toby though I could answer. After several letters going back and forth through Toby we finally began to write directly to each other.
One day in 1984 or 1985 Harry came to my gallery and bought a spatula.
A year later we met up in London where out of the blue he invited me to join him on his next New Guinea voyage.
I asked for at least six months of forewarning and got the call from Australia several weeks later saying that the trip was planned for January/February 1987.
We had actually only ever spent perhaps a grand total of 15 or 20 hours together in the last two or three years and hardly knew each other yet we sailed bravely off into the Coral Sea.
Together with three Papuan crew members on an 11-meter decrepit cabin cruiser, we left for 30 days of navigation and exploration of the Massim area.
Harry was a wonderful and experienced traveling companion who had already made several trips to the area and Papua in general.
Over the next five years we did two other month-long expeditions to the same region exploring in depth several of the islands and their cultures.
A memorable moment is after a very early morning departure and having to struggle through hours of bush walking, cutting paths through the rain forest and climbing up and down coral cliffs to get to a massive burial cave in the Marshall Bennet’s Islands, we discovered on the way out that the village elders had taken us on an all-around-the-island-tour trying to fatigue us to the point of abandoning our quest.
Once we finished our work in the late afternoon and I voiced my concerns about the monumental return trip in the dark they admitted that all we had to do was an easy climb of a 20 meter cliff above the cave and we would arrive directly in the village from which we had departed!
Harry was a professor of philosophy at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales and with his wife, the psychologist Clare Harding, lived in a nice, airy house in Sylvania near Sydney and later at Hunters Hill, both where I spent many weeks camping happily during my visits to Australia.
In Sydney he was the pivotal collector who knew everybody and was appreciated by all. Harry introduced me to all the collectors and dealers and curators, most of whom became good friends and suppliers.
One day he asked me what I thought about an idea of his – the creation of a club of Oceanic art aficionados. I was half for it and half against as it would of course bring out the collectors, but it would also introduce them to each other and create competition.
In the end we decided that was a good idea and Harry went on to launch the OAS or Oceanic Art Society. It has become a major and well recognised association over the last 25 years publishing books and organising events such as the milestone 2017 symposium in Melbourne at the Savage Club.
Another idea of his was to create the Harry Beran data base of early labels and inventory numbers. Once again, we debated it fiercely and, in the end, decided that it was workable. It has since grown and is now in its fifth or sixth mutation on the OAS web site.
Harry opened all the doors for me in Australia introducing me to wonderful people. Leo Fleischmann, his old friend from their early days in Vienna, became a great friend of mine as did many others.
The Australian tribal scene in the 1980/90’s was a vibrant patchwork of collectors, dealers, former colonials and artists.
Harry was always available, ready to meet people and help with information requests. He was instrumental in opening doors for the book I was writing on Oceanic Art. That book was actually launched at what I think was the first OAS meeting under his presidency.
The internet became a major improvement in communications with Harry.
Before email it was either the postal service or the telephone and I remember Rita, my mother and business partner, complaining about the weekly phone call with Harry because his thoughtful and carefully constructed manner of speech could extend a sentence way beyond the minute and in those days the minute with Australia was several dollars!
A side of Harry that most people do not know about is that as a collector he collected everything – one thing was jokes about bars and a favourite of his was always: “A rabbi, a priest, and a Lutheran minister walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’"
To this collection he added spinning tops and with reason his academic interest was most often piqued by objects that existed in multiples.
After the Lime Spatula era and having sold his Massim collection to John Friede he became interested in Marupai from the Papuan Gulf, trying to create groups based on design elements.
Harry Beran is a very well-known and respected author.
He is one of the remarkably few scholars to have firmly identified a tribal artist by name – Harry’s book of the Massim artist Mutuaga is one of the greatest Tribal Art history detective investigations of the 20th century.
His contributions to the books on Oceanic shields are noteworthy as are his publications on lime spatula and Massim art.
We were all awaiting his forthcoming book on the Massim which is to be published in conjunction with the De Young Museum of San Francisco… now we will wait a bit longer unfortunately.
Auf Wiederschauen Harry….
The entire Meyer family and Galerie Meyer - Oceanic & Eskimo Art extend their deepest sympathies and condolences to Clare Harding and Steven Beran