This exhibition was a model of concision, an intensely pleasurable summary of the knotty moment in art history when a bunch of French artists got it into their heads to collect ceremonial masks made by the Yup’ik people, a native Alaskan tribe. “Moon Dancers: Yup’ik Masks and the Surrealists” presented seventy-four pieces, most of them paintings and sculptures by artists such as Victor Brauner, André Breton, Leonora Carrington, and Max Ernst, along with nineteen Yup’ik masks owned by these same artists. Breton and Man Ray first saw the Yup’ik masks in 1935 in Paris, at the Galerie Charles Ratton. The masks fed into Breton’s conception of how objects worked in the “radical poetic practice” of Surrealism. In his 1935 essay “The Situation of the Surrealist Object,” Breton quotes Salvador Dalí’s definition: “an object which lends itself to a minimum of mechanical functions and is based on phantoms and representations liable to be provoked by the realization of unconscious acts.” The Yup’ik made their masks from wood, feathers, and paint during long winters indoors and used them to strengthen bonds between the spirit world and the physical world. The masks were discarded every season and made anew when the need arose. It is unclear what the Yup’ik would have thought of people hanging these objects on walls for decades at a time. Breton believed that “chance encounters” between people and objects could create new meanings, that the manipulation of context could make the unfamiliar powerful and spark the unconscious. The Surrealists may have been slightly incoherent in their fusion of Dalí, Hegel, and Claude Lévi-Strauss—who were more than a little instrumental in their collection of Yup’ik masks (and kachina dolls)—but the Surrealists stopped short of telling the story of the Yup’ik people, thankfully. In the “Exposition surréaliste d’objets” (Surrealist Exhibition of Objects), presented in 1936 at Galerie Charles Ratton, Breton included five Yup’ik pieces (then labeled “Eskimo masks”). Come high noon, even outnumbered, the Yup’ik artists blow away the Surrealists with their enthusiastic use of all three dimensions. One piece, dated ca. 1890–1910 and titled Moon Mask (after the fact), features a shallowly carved face within a bean-shaped piece of wood, with deeper cuts to delineate the downturned eyes and mouth. The piece is encircled by two willow-root hoops, which send energy outward, while a pair of small wooden hands protrude from either side, apparently welcoming the Yup’ik shaman. Feathers radiate from several other masks, indicating flight between worlds. The masks are tightly constrained, conveying a sense of both delirium and purpose. Most of the mask collecting happened in the early 1940s, when the Surrealists fled from Europe to New York. Ernst introduced his cohort to the dealer Julius Carlebach, a gallery owner who had hoovered up dozens of masks and objects deaccessioned by the Museum of the American Indian (now a part of the Smithsonian Institution). One of the few Surrealist sculptures here was by Ernst, La plus belle (The Most Beautiful), 1967, which vaguely echoes the ovals of the Yup’ik. The six-foot-high bronze figure connects a moon-pie head on a stem to a slim, bent lozenge perched on a triangular hill. Several Yup’ik masks have a similar blunt quality—simple curves and dots variously suggest eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Ernst here mirrored the brio of the Yup’ik’s orthography without using any of their specific language. One of the exhibition’s strongest paintings, Brauner’s Extrait du radiant symbolique (Extract of the Symbolic Radiant), 1962, borrowed the Yup’ik feathers (as did Breton in Pour Elisa [For Elisa], 1947) and used them to sprout a circular cat/bird/human figure. This fusion of animal and human hearkens back to the tribe’s rituals, which subsumed any lines between animal, human, and spiritual. “Moon Dancers” gave the Yup’ik some well-deserved light and aired out the Surrealist shelf, finding common ground in a fierce and bright kind of disorientation.

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