Surrealism and Inuit Art: The Fascination of the Far North

Florence Duchemin-Pelletier


It is now generally agreed that Surrealism had a particular affection for non-Western art, objects of interior revelation and inexhaustible sources of the marvelous. The artists of the movement immersed themselves in study of foreign cultures and in the human spirit of people of distant regions. In their quest to renew appropriate sources to support their vision of the world, the movement was passionate about anything associated with the strange and the foreign. The Western world, having sunk into irrationality by abusing reason, and having broken the tie between the physical and the mental, needed to regain a new harmony. Primitive arts provided a path for reconquest of instinct and long-forgotten qualities.

These preoccupations, which they believed similar to their own, led them finally across the globe to the Far North. Some of them, such as Max Ernst, were hypnotized by the Hopi Indians, while others, notably Wolfgang Paalen, were under the spell of British Columbia. However, the fascination for the Far North had a definite place in the history of Surrealism and the Americas.

If their interest in the American Indians is today widely known, that for the Inuit of the Arctic still remains abstract. The principal difficulty of such a study lies in the flagrant absence of written testimonies. The only evidence of their interest is found in a few sentences, letters or poems. Collections, auction records, and inventories of books bought by the different protagonists are also very helpful for understanding their degree of enthusiasm. Nevertheless, these elements remain rather scarce, especially in comparison with the data available for other cultural areas. And it goes without saying that without the famous 1929 Surrealist Map of the World, early interest in the Far North would have remained unexplored. Indeed, this essential document shows an entirely rethought planisphere, in which Alaska, Labrador and Greenland are magnified and almost supplant Oceania.
This paper consequently aims at defining the appreciation of Inuit art, and more generally, the Inuit world, by the Surrealists. It will be shown that this interest was already firmly ingrained in the 1920's, long before the exile. It is highly likely that the renowned art dealer Charles Ratton invited members of the group to see the pieces he regularly acquired. We know that André Breton and Paul Eluard started their own collections soon thereafter and, as attested by the 1931 auction catalogue of their collections at the Hôtel Drouot, they possessed a good number of Inuit artifacts.

The exhibition of then still-little-known Inuit and Northwest Coast objects at the Galerie Charles Ratton in 1935 is also considered. This first encounter between the Surrealists and Yup'ik masks was of great importance since many Surrealist artists and writers, as we know, were fascinated by these shamanistic creations. Paul Eluard, in particular, was amazed by this art and wrote "La nuit est à une dimension" - the only published article dedicated to Inuit art – for Cahiers d’art on the occasion. In this text, and through a rereading of Knud Rasmussen, he reveals his own perception and understanding of the Inuit way of life, its struggles and hopes.

Emphasis is placed on the exile period, in which the attraction for Inuit art was at a climax and multiple opportunities for viewing and acquisition were possible. Most of the individuals gravitating around the Surrealist core saw, loved, and bought Yup’ik masks in New York. In a letter to her husband, Isabelle Waldberg summed up everyday life very well: “We threw ourselves into the poetic atmosphere of Eskimo masks, we are breathing Alaska and we are dreaming Tlingit and we are loving ourselves in the Haida totempoles.”

Finally, this paper will treat the subject from a slightly different perspective than that of previous studies: not only will the history of collecting and the visual panorama of the time be recalled, but the appearance of a specific Inuit representation, unavoidably bound to its unique territory, will also be questioned. Moreover, my argument will focus on possible affinities shared in Surrealist and Inuit thinking. The members of the group admired the aesthetic and plastic inventiveness of Inuit art; but they were also impressed by the inner life of this culture, found in its poetry and beliefs.

The conclusion of this paper will demonstrate that the Surrealists were generous in sharing their knowledge and discoveries. They thereby greatly contributed to acknowledgement of non-Western cultures and transcended the vision we have today of these arts.

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