Surrealist Collectors

During the 1940s, a number of Surrealist artists were living in New York, having fled Europe during the 2nd World War. Max Ernst, AndréBreton, Roberto Matta, Enrico Donati, Dorothea Tanning, and their friends Georges Duthuit, Robert Lebel, and Claude Levi- Strauss among others, all frequented Carlebach’s gallery at Third Avenue and 56th Street. Max Ernst was apparently, according to Tanning, the first to encounter the place, leading the others one by one to his closely guarded secret “treasure house.” All of them marveled at the native art they saw there, discussed it widely, brought other artists, writers, and friends, and purchased many pieces, including Yup’ik masks, and encouraged Carlebach to obtain more specimens. Carlebach introduced them to one of the curators at the Museum of the American Indian, the main source of his inventory, and they even toured the MAI’s storage warehouse in the Bronx, prompting them to create wish lists from among the dusty relics.

In the Alaskan artifacts, the Surrealists saw direct correlations to their own art, not only in form but in meaning. They saw the Surrealist project as a return to a “pre-civilized” human condition, with free spiritual communion between the human subconscious and a broader universe. And they were deeply interested in dream imagery, which they intuitively understood to be an underlying premise of Yup’ik masks as well as the Northwest Coast Indian art they also avidly collected. Breton organized exhibitions of Alaskan art, and the group published articles, giving it attention after decades of neglect. But ironically, in bringing their admired new specimens out of the shadows, they separated them yet further from their original contexts—as well as the masks’ mates.

Numerous pieces were de-accessioned from the MAI, sold to Carlebach by George Heye personally. After the war, most of the Surrealist group returned to Paris with their treasures. Today, many of these objects, especially those collected by Breton, have made their way into the Louvre Museum and other French collections, where they are proudly exhibited among masterpieces of so-called arts premiers, or arts of first peoples.

Some masks came about from one’s dreams and one’s vision of how the universe is. Everyone cannot be a good carver, so if you had a vision or an incredible dream, you’d go to a good carver and commission a mask. And you walk that carver through your vision, or your dream, or the story. That’s how it was done initially, pre-contact. A lot of these old style masks were done that way.
Chuna McIntyre
There was a time when objects that we once called primitive were once accessible to small budgets. For instance, when André Breton and I were in the United States, we knew that these objects were as beautiful as those of other civilizations. And one could acquire them for modest sums of money.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Far from Brazil, 2005, page 25