Yua: Henri Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit
In the final decade of his life, alongside famous paper cut-outs and designs for the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, celebrated French artist Henri Matisse was commissioned by his son-in-law Georges Duthuit to illustrate a book on Arctic peoples. The invitation to produce three drawings resulted in over 50 works based on Duthuit’s collection of Yup’ik masks. A new exhibition at the Heard Museum, co-curated by Sean Mooney and Yup’ik elder Chuna McIntyre, brings together Matisse’s work alongside the once separated objects to examine the surprising points of contact between these two distinct histories. Below, Mooney reflects on the importance of reuniting these masks and their relationship to the canonical figure:
This exhibition builds on the work I’ve been doing over the years on Yup’ik masks from Alaska, specifically in trying to restore the tradition of the mated pairs and groups. When these pieces were collected at the end of the nineteenth century, they were scattered around to different museums and collections. They were immediately separated from their context as masks that were performed in groups and pairs as part of the structure of the dance. I’ve been slowly trying to reunite these pairs in exhibitions and projects like this.
We’re going to be seeing a lot of Yup’ik material that belonged to Duthuit, which Matisse would have seen when he was asked to do these drawings. We know Matisse was familiar with this work and there is documented correspondence between him and his daughter Marguerite Duthuit about seeing the masks and his response to them. Matisse’s drawing process was such that he started with a portrait-like image and then reworked the drawing many times until it got to a point where they were so simplified that he referred to them as masks.
Ultimately, this became an opportunity to present almost two exhibitions at once: one about the Matisse material and the other about the Yup’ik masks. And to create a point of contact between them.
– Sean Mooney
BELOW (MIDDLE) Central Alaskan Yup’ik dance mask representing the Moon Woman(c. 1870)
BELOW (LEFT) Henri Matisse’s lithograph Esquimau (c. 1947) from Georges Duthuit’s Une Fête en Cimmérie (1963)