Crane Mask

Title: 
Crane Mask
Date: 
Identifier: 
T0651
Description: 
Central Yup'ik Eskimo Crane Mask Animal masks were worn in dance festivals to please the spirits of the animals, bring success in hunting, and help maintain an orderly universe. This remarkable dance mask shows a large crane carrying a shaman's helper on its abdomen. The helper carries goose feathers to convey healing. This crane is not actually flying, as the legs do not extend straight behind; rather they are bent, poised for flight or bounding upward in ritual dance. Gift of Madame Pierre Matisse. File Catalog Entry: Crane Mask Bering Sea Eskimo, Alaska late 19th or early 20th century wood, bird quill, vegetable fiber, feathers, paint 41" h. x 25" w. x 15" d. T651 A.H. Twitchell, Bethel, Alaska; acquired from him by George G. Heye, 1919; to Julius Carlebach, 1946; acquired from Carlebach Gallery by Pierre Matisse, 1946-47; gift of Mrs. Pierre Matisse One of the most breathtaking pairs of Yup'ik wooden painted dance masks that has come down to us impersonates large cranes carrying their inua faces, their spirit component, upon their lower abdomens. They are products of a particular shaman's vision, and seem fairly to burst with energetic, potential movement. Standing tall, widespread legs, with wings aflutter, their necks straining upwards, the birds seem to be executing a mating dance. Or are they exuberantly attempting a take off? In any case, the narrative element in these masks delineates movement more realistically than the overlapping complexities of Yup'ik shamanistic iconography usually allow, showing how acutely and sharply perceptive of avian lifeways a superb carver could be. These cranes are not actually flying, as their legs are not extending straight behind; rather they are bent, poised for flight or bounding upwards in ritual dance - perhaps both aspects are compositely represented here. There is maintained here a precocious balance between the preternatural and the natural, a characteristic that makes Alaskan masks so intriguing to western beholders in that they successfully suspend belief. The immortal and continuing factor of all cranes, and in fact all bird life, was imbedded here in the small human faces, or inua. Nothing is in animal/human transformation here - all is given over to the bird and its immortality of soul. All that we know about this pair is that they represent "a crane that carried a sick angakok to his home." This is what A. H. Twitchell was told when he purchased the masks in 1919. One of the pair, retained in the National Museum of the American Indian, can be seen carrying the sick shaman upon its breast huddled between the encircling protective wings. (see text illustration) (1) In the 1940s the importance of keeping pairs of Alaskan masks together was lost upon collectors such as Heye, who missed the complementarity of these masks to each other; one, the mask retained by Heye and today in Washington, D.C. is female for the inua mouth in its abdomen frowns; while its companion mask now in the Thaw Collection has a smiling inua face, the sign of maleness. It is the female mask that carries the sick shaman upon its breast. The two masks need to be seen and danced together as embodying both female and male aspects of being, perceived as integral parts of all human and animal creativity. Heye willingly traded the male mask to the pioneer New York "primitive art" dealer Julius Carlebach in 1944, thus breaking the interlocked dualities of male and female spiritually expressed when the masks were danced or displayed together. An internationally prominent modern art dealer Pierre Matisse purchased this mask from Julius Carlebach shortly after it was traded out from Heye's Museum of the American Indian. At this point the ex-Heye mask acquired a fascinating new identity of its own; it was now - separated from its original context - admired as a work of art by Pierre Matisse and surrealist artists and writers such as Max Ernet and Andre Breton, members of a colony of expatriate artists from wartorn Europe. Pierre Matisse's gallery in the Fuller Building was a New York center for meeting and discussing between members of this group, details of which await the forthcoming biography of Pierre Matisse now being prepared by art critic John Russell. Pierre Matisse's role as an influential art dealer, as an important advisor to his father, the great twentieth-century painter Henri Matisse, and as a creative taste-maker in New York has been underestimated and is due for restudy.(2) In 1995 Pierre Matisse's widow munificently presented her husband's crane mask to the Thaw Collection at Cooperstown in honor of Eugene and Clare Thaw. Removed from the Matisse apartment in New York, it now enters a third phase of its existence, into which both art and ethnological truths are dovetailed. It can now be perceived as a respected work of culture in the broadest sense of the term, as encapsulating a uniquely far northern system of belief, prayer, and drama, from which, however, deeply felt aesthetics were never absent. Rather they were emphasized as inseparable from culture; hopefully the dancing cranes, reunited in spirit if not in fact, now become symbols of mutual understanding. Surely this pair of great primordial bird spirits can stand on their own as world art language, as protectors and continuators of human culture, now as in the past. But their substance and meaning as Eskimo truth must never be gainsaid. Clearly these bird spirits are instruments of rescue and compassion, as is demonstrated by the wings sheltering the shaman's simulacre upon the breast of the Washington version. The great sculptural quality of the Thaw crane mask and its companion among even its peers can be inferred by comparing it to another lone crane mask which Edward W. Nelson collected in 1881. (3) It is in a eroded state, but also has a similarly elongated format, and even bears similar traces of red coloring, a color perhaps associated with crane masks (it is also known to represent ancestor's blood or ancestral bloodlines). Though powerful in imagery the example Nelson collected noticeably lacks the elegance of rhythm and vitality of stance that distinguishes the pair of dancing cranes it was trader A.H.Twitchell's good fortune to encounter and preserve. 1. The Washington mask is the better known of the pair. It is reproduced on page 194 of Creation's Journey: Native American Identity and Belief, edited by Tom Hill and Richard W. Hill, Sr., Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press and N.M.A.I., 1994. The quotation will be found on the same page. This mask is given a full-page color plate in Ann Fienup-Riordan, The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks, 1996, opposite p. 13. 2. This writer can remember seeing African sculpture and others pieces of Primitive art set along the window sills and shelving of Pierre Matisse's office when I visited the gallery in 1947 in the company of my father to view an exhibition of the "new" Henri Matisse paintings, the first to reach America after the Second World War and give evidence of Matisse's painting accomplishments during the German occupation. 3. This crane mask, collected by Edward W. Nelson at Rasboinsky, is reproduced in Inua, Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo, No. 254, p. 206. It appears to have lain in the discard for some time before Nelson collected it, while the pair collected later by Twitchell appears to have been acquired immediately after the ceremony in which they figured.
Physical dimensions: 
depth 15 in, height 43.5 in, width 25 in
Format: 
Coverage: