Polar Bear Effigy

Polar Bear Effigy
Ipiutak Polar Bear Effigy Hunters carried small figures like these during the hunt to receive aid from the game spirits. The bear's power and might is embodied in its bared teeth, laid back ears and the massing of its body. The elongated body of the other bear has little detail except for its eye markings. Its legs are solid masses with no joints or paws. The carver's interests seemed to lie in creating a smoothly finished yet powerful bear. Carving ca AD 100-600/Ipiutak Culture/Spencer Point area, Seward Peninsula, Alaska File Catalog Entry: Polar Bear Ivory Carving Prehistoric Eskimo (Ipiutak) AD 100-600 Ivory 1 3/4" h. x 4 1/2" l. x 1" w. Jeffrey R. Meyers, New York; Ron Nasser, New York; purchased by Eugene V. Thaw, 1992. T225 The Ipiutak people had a style of ivory carving that paralleled in time Old Bering Sea II and III in North Alaska, and some influence from Old Bering Sea is assumed, (1) but beyond that the comparison ceases, due to the expressive originality revealed in surviving Ipiutak ivories, particularly the animal effigies. The Ipiutak are named for the sandbar that separates two lagoons on the North Shore of Point Hope, Alaska, well north of the Bering Strait. It was here that Froelich Rainey, former director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and Helge Larsen, an archeologist from the National Museum of Denmark who was caught in America during World War II, excavated for the first time Ipiutak burial and house sites in 1940-41. Ipiutak carving still included engraved lines, but the three-dimensional aspect, particularly with regard to animal subjects, supersedes them. Now sculptural qualities govern the emotional impact, no longer surface designs as in Old Bering Sea - perhaps the earliest example in which arctic artists invested their work with a deliberate expressionist intent. In the most famous sculpture from the Ipiutak miniature bestiary, a baby walrus in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, the juvenile animal is forced back on its real flippers in its immature struggle to move forward. It remains puppyish in its quandary, eyes and mouth cavity still too large for its size, head too long and outsized. Despite the small size of this ivory, flippers and flesh register as rubbery, all this suggestivity achieved within the limits of smooth ivory. Over previous and contemporary ivory carvings in this part of Alaska, such a sculpture as this marked an acute advance in artistic powers of observation. While not as immediately expressive as the baby walrus ivory, the Thaw polar bear is not far behind it in quality. In the first place it depicts a far larger animal without the advantage of a close-up scale. By some alchemy, however, the jaws snarl and suggest capability of biting, with front teeth clenched. Ears are laid back, there is an indication of growling where none had been before in arctic art. Only a few vertical parallel lines indicate ribs beneath the flesh, but they seem empowered to move. Certainly this Cooperstown bear is superior to its alter-ego, which was included in Allen Wardwell's seminal exhibition of ancient Bering Sea ivories (text. illus. (2) The latter is stodgy by comparison, lacks character, and its legs are crude ivory blocks. In fact it might be interpreted as some sort of ancient workshop replica of the Thaw Collection's masterpiece. The Thaw polar bear is from a quite recent excavation in the Point Spencer area of Seward Peninsula, about 150 miles south of the type site at Point Hope, where another bear carving was found. Since relatively few Ipiutak sculptures have come to light since the original Rainey-Larsen excavations over fifty years ago, its publication here is a welcome addition to the corpus of major Ipiutak sculptures. With its implicit animal dynamism this bear seems connected to the Sino-Siberian animal style. Though the details of this connection may always elude us, here is indirect but clear evidence of ancient interaction between Asia and North America, the current of influence going from east to west. When new ivories such as this were white; the very rich dark patina is due to centuries of burial in the tundra. 1. Allen Wardwell, Ancient Eskimo Ivories of the Bering Strait. New York: Hudson Hills Press, in association with The American Federation of Art, 1986. The baby walrus is repr. cat. no.153, p.116. For Ipiutak art see pp. 112-124. 2. Wardwell, op. cit.-, repr. p. 117. Repr. Tresors de Nouveau Monde, Brussels, 1992, Fig. 18, p. 107. (exhibition organized with the aid of the Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels; catalog coordinators Lin and Emile Delataille) Wardwell 1992, p.107, fig.18; Penney and Longfish 1994, p.245; Vincent 1995a, p.88; Vincent 1995b, p.65, pl.VI.
Physical dimensions: 
height 1.75 in, length 4.625 in, width 1.75 in