Biography looks at Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen’s obsession with Inuit culture.
Q&A: Stephen Bown on explorer Knud Rasmussen. Reviews: Northern light. On thin ice. Following the melody. More books: Unsolved murders, high explosives, travelling in style, home on the range, urban encounters.
Canadian author Stephen R. Bown has written an engaging book about one of the lesser-known figures from the great age of Arctic exploration. White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey Into the Heart of the Arctic is a biography of the Danish explorer and anthropologist who travelled to the northern reaches of Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, and Alaska to learn about remote Inuit communities that had had little or no contact with white culture. Canada’s History senior editor Nelle Oosterom spoke with Bown about the book.
Who was Knud Rasmussen?
Basically, everything we know about premodern Inuit intellectual life is a result of this one individual.
Knud Rasmussen was born in 1879 in the town of Illulisat, Greenland, which was formerly known as Jacobshaven. He was raised in Greenland in a part-Inuit, partDanish family [he was one eighth Inuit on his mother’s side] and he saw change occurring in Greenland from his earliest years. He anticipated that this change would accelerate with the development of airplanes, and faster ships, and better maps. There was more and more contact between Inuit and white people who otherwise would have been extremely remote from each other.
Because Rasmussen was fluent in the language and culture of the Inuit — at the time they were called the Eskimo — and because he was also an excellent hunter and a dogsled driver, he had complete cultural fluency that enabled him to gain access to the homes of these extremely remote and nomadic people in a way no outsider ever could have done. Because of his incredible social culture and charisma, he was trusted and respected.
Over months of living with isolated bands and travelling with them, he was able to earn their trust and convince them to share their most intimate beliefs and customs with him. He recorded all their poetry, philosophy, legends, songs, religious beliefs, personal stories of tragedy, mystery, and adventure — and he did this just on the cusp of change.
He essentially gave us a record of an intellectual culture that could otherwise have completely disappeared at that time. He wasn’t just a collector, he was also a poet with a keen intuition and insight into human nature. His own life was a string of adventures. He traversed the Greenland ice sheet multiple times; he travelled all the way from Hudson Bay to Siberia by dogsled, a journey that took years and was about twenty thousand miles [thirty-two thousand kilometres] in duration. His whole life was one grand epic adventure — but his contribution to global culture because of his collection and translation of the intellectual culture of Inuit peoples from diverse communities across the polar world is essentially priceless.
What was Rasmussen’s primary motivation for going into the Arctic?
That’s the heart of the question. I think, really, he was on a quest to understand
himself better through a quest to understand the people from the mysterious side of his lineage — that is, his Inuit lineage, which was not very well understood in the early twentieth century.
To Rasmussen, the heart of the Arctic was the inner life of the people who lived in the far northern reaches. … He believed that the soul of any culture was not in its architecture, or in the size of its cities or technology, but in its philosophy, its songs, its legends, its beliefs, its intellectual culture.
From growing up in Inuit culture, Rasmussen knew it to be as rich and as insightful and wise as any culture in the world. To an outside observer, this would have been very difficult to perceive.
How was he different from most Arctic explorers?
Most Arctic explorers are coming from somewhere else, questing after some essentially meaningless but symbolic geographical objective, like being the first to go to the North Pole, or the first to sail the Northwest Passage. … But Rasmussen was actually very different because he already had one leg in the cultural world of the people who lived in the Arctic.
His objective was also very different. He wasn’t going after those symbolic conquests. His goal was essentially to travel and to meet every known Inuit band that then existed in the world. ... He showed that the people living in Alaska, and in Arctic Canada, and in south and north Greenland were all basically the same culture. No one knew that it was the same culture at that time. He was able to speak the same language wherever he went. And he was on his own personal quest to satisfy his curiosity about his heritage.
How is his work viewed today?
Some ethnographers and linguists might quibble a little bit about some of his claims, but essentially the enormous body of work that he collected during his life in the Arctic constitutes the foundation for everything that’s known about the premodern societies of Inuit people. If he hadn’t done that in that moment in time, the knowledge probably would have been lost, because it was an oral culture without written records. The Group of Seven persuaded Canadians to pay attention to Canadian art. Shrewd self-mythologizers, they made it seem as if their art had sprung spontaneously from the wilderness to become the first modern and authentically Canadian painting movement.
The group’s overwhelming presence has tended to eclipse Canadian artists who worked around the turn of the twentieth century. A.K. Prakash’s Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery is a muchneeded corrective. Copiously illustrated and exhaustively researched, the book offers a vivid, detailed picture of the achievements of Canadian Impressionists.
As well as being a beautifully produced coffee-table book, this hefty volume is a comprehensive introduction to Impressionism, starting with its development in nineteenth-century France. Prakash, an art dealer and advisor who has promoted historical Canadian art at home and abroad, doesn’t break new theoretical ground. He sums up, in accessible, often entertaining prose, the ways in which artists such as Degas, Monet, Morisot, and Renoir attempted to convey the mutable, momentary impressions of their rapidly changing world, including the then recently transformed city of Paris and its surroundings, and the swirl of new bourgeois pleasures.
Prakash then moves to the movement’s effect on American artists, partly through the influence of Mary Cassatt, the Pittsburgh-born painter who worked extensively with the French Impressionists. Cassatt encouraged her wealthy childhood friend Louisine Havemeyer to become an early collector of the new French art. When Havemeyer was asked whether she would rather have a new pearl necklace or a new painting, she replied that she preferred “to have something made by a man than to have something made by an oyster.”
The book culminates with a thorough examination of the Canadian scene. Realizing that artists can’t “operate in a vacuum but [need] encouragement, stimulation, and sales,” Prakash looks at exhibitors, dealers, collectors, and critics. He then highlights fourteen significant Canadian artists, including Maurice Cullen, J.W. Morrice, Clarence-Alphonse Gagnon, and Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté. Prakash also looks at Laura Muntz (later Lyall) and Helen MacNicoll, thoughtfully exploring the challenges faced by women artists at that time. The unmarried Muntz was called home from a triumphant year in Paris to look after an ailing relative.
Prakash meticulously tracks the artists’ studies abroad, occasionally throwing in funny anecdotes. For instance, Morrice left the Académie Julian not from disdain at the conservative tutelage of William Bouguereau but because another student beaned him on the head with a baguette.
As the structure of the book suggests, Canadian Impressionism began under French influence; yet Prakash argues that Canadian Impressionism was not just a belated copy of the French original but something specific to Canada. Many art-
ists explored scenes of rural labour and quiet Quebec villages. Others observed the unique qualities of winter light and the dramatic changes of northern seasons. The most iconic mark of Canadian Impressionism might be the glint of blue shadows in snow.
Prakash admits that his definition of Impressionism can be loose. Many of the younger Canadians were influenced not just by the Impressionists but also by Seurat’s pointillism, Van Gogh’s expressionism, and Matisse’s Fauvism. Morrice, whose later works often relied on blocks of flat, unmodulated colour, might more accurately be termed a Post-Impressionist. Prakash also tends to emphasize style and technique, sometimes ignoring the social implications of content. He quotes painter William Clapp’s declaration that all great art is founded upon the abstractions of “vision, light, colour, space, atmosphere, vibration, form.” For Clapp, any subject matter was “accidental,” a detail subordinate to the formalist whole. The fact that Clapp’s “accidents” are often pertbreasted female nudes in forests might warrant a closer look, though.
Still, these are minor quibbles about a major achievement. With its rich and beautiful wealth of visual material, Impressionism in Canada offers a generous introduction to a general audience. Its extensive appendices, bibliography, and notes, and its sheer collation of research, references, and information, will also provide a crucial resource for specialized scholars who might want to take this material in more theoretical directions.
Reviewed by Alison Gillmor, a Winnipeg journalist and art historian.
Knud Rasmussen, centre, with Arnarulunguaq, left, and Miteq, right, in front of their sled at Point Barrow, Alaska, in May 1924 near the end of their great journey across the North.