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Man-Whale Mask


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Probably of Yup'ik origin, this mask is from the beginning of the 20th century and represents a whale-person. It was acquired by Breton in 1935.

This sculpted mask, from the early twentieth century represents a whale, or more precisely, a "whale-person." Indeed, the Yupiit (Alaska) considered these animals as subjects endowed with human qualities. The mask is formed in the shape of a whale, and elongates towards a human head with finely sculpted features, adorned by a tuft of feathers. The small orifice located at the top of the head from which the feathers appear represents the blowhole of the marine mammal, and the feathers represent the spouting of water being ejected. Underneath the head, at the level of the shoulders, are two arms which transform into fins, upon which rest a seal. The head comprises a human face which is stylized and sculpted in bas-relief, representing the yua, the soul of the animal, or literally "its self." By combining the zoomorphic elements and the anthropomorphic elements—generally a human face representing the interiority of this animal— the Yupiit created images of "animal people," whose features characterized a specific species and therefore permitted identification of the animal represented.

This mask was exchanged by André Breton along with another object during the July 1935 exposition at the Charles Ratton gallery, "Exhibition of masks and ancient ivories from Alaska and the North-West American coast." However, it was in between 1942-1946, while the surrealists were exiled in New York, that Breton and his friends were able to procure important collections of Yup'ik and Amerindian art (from the North-West and South-West coasts). Breton, Robert Lebel, Roberta Matta, Enrico Donati, Isabelle Waldberg and Dolores Vanetti were particularly interested in the Yup'ik art from Kuskokwim and the lower Yukon area. Lebel sketched the masks that he and his friends purchased as well as others, inspired from images published in ethnographic works, such as the famous The Eskimo about the Bering Strait by Edward William Nelson. In Lebel's notebook (conserved in the Museum of Quai Branly), Lebel sketched a mask that he noted belonged to Dolores Vanetti.

The superb collection of Breton contains seven masks from the region of Kuskokwim and the lower Yukon area (see the photograph of his apartment-atelier in Paris taken by Sabine Weiss in June of 1956) which he purchased from George Heye, the founder of the Museum of the American Indian, through the intermediary, Julius Carlebach. From the 1920s on, George Heye, who found himself in serious financial difficulty, decided to sell or exchange objects that he considered (erroneously) as "doubles." Yup'ik masks were often made in pairs, but one was always complementary or symmetrical to the other – never were they completely identical. This was how the Museum of the American Indian, who possessed the most important collection of Yup'ik masks in the world, ceded around sixty of them to Carlebach in the 1940s – to the delight of collectors such as the surrealists.

The surrealists were conquered by the power of suggestion that these objects were intimately associated with dreams and visions, and with their great formal liberty. The masks appeared in the shaman's dreams, and then were built by artists under the shaman's supervision. They were made of heterogeneous materials such as wood, feathers, hair. The masks were used in the ceremonial house at the end of winter during the proprietary rituals in which the community participated to invoke certain animals (whales, seals, caribous, etc.) in order to put their bodies at the disposition of humans during the next hunting season. The Yup'ik needed these animals for food and to survive in the hostile environment they lived in. Worn by the dancers, or hung on the walls of the ceremonial house, the masks represented the "souls" of the animals and the auxiliary spirits of the shamans. Their apparition was accompanied by stories that retraced certain aspects of a mythology, and by rhythmic songs percussed by tambourines. These masks were originally ephemeral creations: destined to be destroyed by fire or abandoned in the tundra after being the vessel of a ceremonial power. [Marie Mauzé, André Breton website, 2014]



Cahors, Musée de Cahors Henri-Martin, La Maison de verre, André Breton, initiateur découvreur, 20 septembre - 29 décembre 2014 (exhibition prolonged until the 1st of February 2015)



- Paul Éluard, « La nuit est à une dimension », Cahiers d'Art, n° 5-6, 10e année, 1935, p. 99-100, rep. p. 100.

- Musée de Cahors Henri-Martin, La Maison de verre André Breton initiateur découvreur, Paris, Éditions de l'Amateur, 2014, rep. p. 93, 94, cité p. 92-94

- Marie Mauzé, "The Yup'ik World And The Surrealists", in Donald Ellis (dir.), Art Of The Arctic: Reflections Of The Unseen, with essays by Dawn Ades, Colin Browne and Marie Mauzé, London, Black Dog Publishing, 2015, p. 54-61 , rep. p. 57, notes p. 152.

Creation dateXXe siècle
Physical description

Bois, plumes, 50 x 9 x 17 cm
n° inv. 12/914 et 1629

From / ProvenanceMuseum of the American Indian (Heye Foundation)
coll. Dolores Vanetti
coll. Charles Ratton
Place of origin
Size50,00 x 17,00 x 9,00 cm
Copyrightphoto Benjamin Krebs, © AAAB/MCHM
Keywords, ,
CategoriesInuit Yup'ik Art
Set[Journal] Cahiers d'art
ExhibitionAndré Breton, The House Of Glass
Permanent link
Places of origin

See also

3 Works

[ À ma belle Jacqueline...]

André Breton


Lettre-poème d'André Breton à Jacquelie Lamba, sans date.

Une image, une notice descriptive, une transcription, une bibliothèque, des liens.

[Correspondance] Lettres à Aube


[Cette nuit malgré la toux...]

André Breton


Lettre d'André Breton à Jacqueline Lamba, le 21 décembre 1935.

Deux images, une notice descriptive, une transcription, une bibliothèque, des liens.

[Correspondance] Lettres à Aube


Cahiers d'Art, 5-6


Numéro 5 - 6, de la dixième année 1935, de cette revue artistique et littéraire éditée par Christian Zervos à Paris.

Une image, une notice descriptive.

[Journal] Cahiers d'art

1 Comment

 L'analyse de l'exposition de 1935 chez Charles Ratton et des inventaires envoyés par George Heye au marchand donne tout à fait raison à Marie Mauzé : le masque a effectivement été acquis à Paris en 1935 ou en 1936 (Elizabeth Cowling indique que Breton a justement acquis un masque inuit un an après l'exposition, se fondant certainement sur les souvenirs de Robert Lebel).

Le masque qui apparaît dans le carnet de Robert Lebel et qui a été acheté par Dolores Vanetti était probablement son jumeau.