The faces behind the masks

ArctiCulture | A show about artist Henri Matisse’s second-hand depictions of the people formerly known as Eskimos says much about the artist but less about the Inuit

An ‘Eskimo’, as Matisse saw her (full image below)

Kevin McGwin

The term ‘Eskimo’ has long since fallen out of favour as a term for indigenous peoples of the Arctic. No longer willing to accept a term coined by outsiders, the groups it was once applied to now call themselves ‘Inuit’.

However, using modern language to define yesterday’s worldviews would be to ignore the context in which they developed. It makes sense, then, if in a particularly jarring fashion, for Odrupgaard Museum, in Copenhagen, to call its temporary show of Henri Matisse portraits of Inuit, created in the 1940s, Matisse and the Eskimos.

The exhibit, on view until November 29, seeks to explore an “unknown” chapter of Mr Matisse’s career in which his life-long interest in primitive art (again to use the term popular during the time – today we might call it ‘exotic’) saw him enter into a brief phase in which his interests were directed towards the Inuit.

MORE images from the exhibit at end of article

The depictions were drawn between 1947 and 1949, towards the tail end of Mr Matisse’s life, to accompany Une fête en Cimmérie, a book-length poem by his son-in-law, Georges Duthuit. In the poem the Inuit represent the cultural opposite of the bacchanalian lifestyle Mr Duthuit had been living when he composed the work.

While Mr Matisse never travelled to the Arctic and almost certainly never met any Inuit, his introduction to their culture and artwork was no coincidence. Mr Duthuit, while living in New York, was introduced to Inuit art, particularly in the form of masks, and was struck by the similarity with Mr Matisse’s previous works.

Instead of portraiting living Inuit, Mr Matisse created the 31 lithographs used for the book by referring to Mr Duthuit’s collection of masks, as well as to other depictions of Inuit, most notably Knud Rasmussen’s highly respected book Across Arctic America, and the images it contained.

The drawings are in some cases simplified nearly to the point of caricature, yet remain unmistakably recognisable as Inuit. According to the museum, the portraits represent an advanced stage in Mr Matisse’s constant refinement of his depictions of human faces.

It was that process of simplification that, a decade later, culminated in what the artist considered to be his masterpiece: the Chapel of Vence, in the foothills of the French Riviera, and its murals of faceless figures.

Mr Matisse’s increasingly stylised depiction of the human face is epitomised in the skull-like work (see image above) that, according to the artist himself, was both portrait and mask, and which the museum has chosen as the logo for the show.

Befitting today’s worldview of foreign, and especially indigenous culture, Odrupgaard Museum goes to great pains to include an Inuit context in its exhibit. A significant portion of the exhibition space is set aside to explaining Inuit culture, and in particular how it was viewed by explorers, filmmakers and other outsiders near the turn of the century.

By a modern standard, there is something dehumanising about depicting a people second-hand, let alone stylising their appearance. Mr Matisse, however, is not seeking to draw a portrait of an individual, instead, he is creating human masks. Each one is distinct, and distinctly Inuit, but at the same time they contain only an echo of the individual whose image served as its inspiration.

It is for that reason that Matisse and the Eskimos says more about the former and less of the latter. It is also where term most clearly underscores the worldview it represents.

This article originally appeared on The Arctic Journal.

The Rasmussen’s ArctiCulture articles offer a closer look at the arts and culture of the region.

Get full-length articles delivered directly to your inbox. Subscribe to The Rasmussen’s newsletter.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.