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September 01 2018

Watching the Surrealists at Work

Art in America

An article in Art in America foregrounds Yup’ik understanding of ceremonial dance masks as potential agents of Surrealist thought and practice. More than mere inspiration, the works on exhibit at Moon Dancers: Yup’ik Masks and the Surrealists might have actively influenced the artists at work. 

Organised jointly by Donald Ellis Gallery and Di Donna Galleries, New York, the exhibition pairs important historical dance masks from Alaska with Surrealist paintings and sculptures. With reference to the movement’s principle of ‘poetic association,’ the installation elucidates the formal affinities between Yup’ik ceremonial art and the work of Max Ernst, André Breton, Leonora Carrington, Enrico Donati and Victor Brauner, among others. 

For André Breton, collecting Native Alaskan art was an inherently ‘surrealist activity’ capable of liberating the individual from an overly rationalized relation to the modern world. ‘The surrealist practice,’ he wrote in 1948, ‘is inseparable from seduction, from the fascination that these objects exercise over us.’ The author notes that the well-researched publication accompanying the exhibition draws substantial historical links between Surrealist collecting and the use and meanings of the masks.

Some of the works on show were once in the collections of leading Surrealists. The author writes that the highlight of the exhibition is one of nine weather-related masks collected during a 1907–08 expedition to Alaska by Adams Hollis Twitchell. Purchased in 1944 by Enrico Donati, the work ‘imbued his paintings with a diaphaneity not unlike that of the mask’s downy feathers. Yupiit could tell us how these masks might have watched the Surrealists at work in their studios and actively influenced their art, rather than merely serving as inspiration.’

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Watching the Surrealists at Work