Bi­og­ra­phy looks at Dan­ish ex­plorer Knud Ras­mussen’s ob­ses­sion with Inuit cul­ture.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.