Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists

DI DONNA | APRIL 26 – JUNE 29, 2018

Joan Miró, Personnage dans la nuit, 1944. Oil and gouache on canvas, 6 × 9 inches. © 2018 Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

The Surrealists were impassioned by the idea of the spiritual, mental, and aesthetic connections between pre-modern societies, and many were intrigued by and collected the objects that celebrate those connections, such as the masks exhibited at present in the Di Donna Gallery in association with the Donald Ellis Gallery. André Breton was among those collecting these Yup’ik Moon Dancers’ masks as a prime example of the traditional and ritualistic objects imbued with the magic of which he spoke in an interview about his collection printed in the magnificent catalogue Moon Dancers: Yup’ik Masks and the Surrealists, edited by Jennifer Field, with major essays by Christina Rudosky and Marie Mauzé. Breton saw these masks as justifying the Surrealist vision, giving to the vision a “new impetus . . . isn’t that poetry is as we continue to understand it?” 

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Yup’ik Mask, Goodnews Bay, Alaska. Wood, paint and feathers, 10 5/8 × 19 1/8 inches. Private Collection, New York.

These objects are radiant! I am borrowing the term from Victor Brauner’s overwhelmingly powerful feline/ human dancing figure called Extrait du radiant symbolique (1962), and would be persuaded only with difficulty to let it go from my living energy. Absolutely transforming, both the work of the surrealists and the extraordinary masks they encountered and collected in 1935 at the Charles Ratton Gallery in Paris, and in 1943 from the Carlebach Gallery in New York. New York is where the surrealists in exile introduced each other to more Yup’ik objects during World War II, thanks to Max Ernst. So much is thanks to him, including of course “Loplop,” himself portrayed as half avian; see his Loplop présente deux fleurs of 1930 and two attention-grabbing statues, one with a sideways smile we might wish to adopt. (Ah, why could not the present boringness of “selfies” take a surrealizing clue from him? . . . faint hope.) 

Many of the masks on exhibit had been owned by friends of Max Ernst, including Breton, Donati, Lebel, Lévi-Strauss, Matta, Sage, Seligmann, and Waldberg. Their works along with those by Joan Miró, Victor Brauner, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Wolfgang Paalen, Kurt Seligmann, and Leonora Carrington (and more!), show the transformations from the mask to the sculptures, drawings, and paintings in a remarkably potent fashion.

Donned in winter for the night-time ritual dances—accompanied by chants, songs, and drumming calling forth the animal spirits in preparation for the hunts to come—these powerful representations of the shared human/animal soul strike us now doubly, as they are incorporated into major surrealist works as they had existed in their studios and imaginations. Let me hone in on two André Masson creations: Le Dessinateur in its simplicity and small size—here the title says it all—and the sand thrown into the canvas reminds us of his great 1926 work The Battle of the Fishes. The other that dumbstruck me was splendid Choeur des constellations (1942). This one evokes, in the upward reach of the four figures, not only every Greek and other ritual chorus, but the 1939 Miro, Constellations, and André Breton’s response to those celestial spectacles. Never mind that because of Breton’s tone deafness, he was not overeager about anything musical (“Que le rideau tombe sur l’orchestre!”/ “ Down with the curtain on the orchestra!”), the poetry of the prose remains. In that work I kept hearing Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1914–1916), and such a sound vibrated through the reds and blues and yellows like some primary ritual of colors, into which the sand penetrates like an attachment to earth as to the heavens, that I stood transfixed, perhaps by that radiant energy. 

Contributor

Mary Ann Caws

MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.

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