Donald Ellis Gallery Exhibit at Parcours Spans Two Centuries of Native American Art

  • NEW YORK, New York
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  • September 03, 2015

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Mask, Yup’ik Kuskokwim River, Alaska, ca. 1880 wood, pigments, vegetal fibers, 11 ¼” w Ex collection: Enrico Donati
Photo: ©John Bigelow Taylor courtesy of Donald ...

Donald Ellis Gallery at Parcours des Mondes

September 8 – 13, 2015

Exhibiting at Galerie Marie Hélène de La Forest Divonne
12, rue des Beaux-Art, Paris, France

New York, NY, Sept. 3, 2015 – Spanning 2,000 years, Donald Ellis Gallery will present an unprecedented exhibit of exceptional museum quality selections of prehistoric and historic Eskimo and Native American art from Alaska and the Great Plains at Parcours des Mondes.

The exhibit will feature approximately 75 works of prehistoric Eskimo ivories (200 BC – 1700 AD) from the Bill and Carol Wolf Collection of ancient ivories from the Bering Sea. Objects of extraordinary aesthetic and cultural significance will also include over a dozen Yup’ik masks (19th or early 20th century), one of the most highly expressive Eskimo art forms, and a major source of inspiration for many leading Surrealist artists and writers. Reflecting the finest examples of the great Native American graphic art tradition, an extensive range of 50 Plains Indian ledger drawings, from the period 1875 to  1895, will also be presented.

Yup’ik Masks and the Surrealists

Beginning in the 1930’s, Yup’ik masks filled with dream based imagery became a source of inspiration for Surrealists including André Breton, Enrico Donati, Max Ernst, and Roberto Matta. Their infatuation with Native North American art increased during their exile in New York in the 1940’s and continued throughout the history of the movement.

Highlights among the 19th- or early 20th- century Eskimo ceremonial art on exhibit will include Yup’ik masks once owned by Enrico Donati and Robert Lebel.  One of the two Donati masks from the Kuskokwim River, Alaska, dating from the late 19th- century, displays a powerful form encompassing a moon-shaped carved face, animated by outstretched hands embracing two circular hoops. Equally striking, the highly expressive Lebel mask, in the shape of a seabird accented by a crown of feathers, is also from the Kuskokwim River. Originally acquired by the noted trader and field collector Adams Hollis Twitchell, both masks were purchased in New York from the antiquarian Julius Carlebach, who bought them from the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.

Masks collected by Twitchell in this region during his time in Alaska (1905 – 1915) are considered to be among the most elaborate and important known surviving examples of their kind.

Yup’ik masks were introduced to Europe in 1935, as part of the first “Exposition de masques et d’ivoires anciens de l’Alaska et de la côte nord-ouest de l’Amérique,” organized by art dealer and collector Charles Ratton. Ratton played a key role in expanding the Surrealists’ knowledge of Eskimo pieces — enabling them through exchanges to live intimately with these works. Marking the first time Eskimo masks were presented in a Surrealist exhibition, Ratton’s 1936 “Exposition surréaliste d’objets” presented five masks, including one acquired by Breton, alongside Surrealist and Cubist works, ready-mades, found objects, object poems, and objects from Oceania and the Americas from Ratton’s collection. From then on, Yup’ik masks were authoritatively declared as belonging to the category of the Surrealist object.                           

While in exile in New York during WW II, André Breton, Enrico Donati, Max Ernst, Robert Lebel, Roberto Matta, and Wolfgang Paalen sought out Yup’ik masks in museums and curio shops. In 1941, Ernst came upon Julius Carlebach’s antiques shop, which offered many Yup’ik masks, and returned there frequently with Breton, Donati, Lebel, and others.

Upon returning to France, many Surrealists loaned their masks along with other Northwest Coast works of art to the exhibition, “Le Masque,” at Musée Guimet in 1959. More than half of the Alaskan masks presented came from the New York collections of Breton, Lebel, Georges Duthuit (Matisse’s son in law), and Isabelle Waldberg. 

Prehistoric Eskimo Carved Ivories

Ancient ivories from the Bering Strait on exhibit at the gallery will range from utilitarian to intimate and sacred objects depicting human faces and figures, animal beings, and spirits of the sea and sky. Many feature ancient tribal imagery and complex, possibly shamanistic, engravings. These exquisite objects acquired from the Bill and Carol Wolf Collection include pieces once owned by other notable collectors such as Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and Edmund Carpenter and Adelaide de Menil, among others. There will be works of art from periods ranging from Okvik (200 BC – 100 AD), Old Bering Sea (100 – 500 AD), Punuk (500 – 1200 AD), and Thule (1200 – 1700 AD).

Exhibit highlights from this collection will include an Okvik Female Figure, from the Bering Sea, articulated by a high brow ridge, elongated nose, low-placed mouth, and engraved torso. Exceedingly rare in Okvik sculpture, a pair of carefully rendered legs and feet completes the piece. Modeled with great precision, no known examples approach this level of subtle expression. Among the most highly venerated utilitarian objects on exhibit is a Pail Handle, from the Old Bering Sea III period, comprised of ten animal effigies, with engraved designs on the top and side beautifully accentuating the elaborately sculpted form.

Art of the Plains Indians

Most recently, Plains Indian artistry including muslin paintings and ledger drawings have received major international acclaim through the travelling museum exhibition, “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky,” co-organized by Musée du quai Branly, Paris. A large-scale painted muslin previously on loan for this ground-breaking exhibition is one of the gallery’s highlights at ParcoursThis extraordinary drawing vividly depicts the most sacred of Plains Indians rituals, the Sun Dance. Highlights among the extensive range of ledger drawings by Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow and Lakota Sioux artists on offer will include four important Southern Cheyenne ledger drawings attributed to the artist Howling Wolf. His work also formed part of this important museum survey show, which ended at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past May.

Art from the Arctic: Masks and Ivories Exhibit Catalogue

In conjunction with Donald Ellis Gallery’s 40th anniversary, a fully illustrated, 256-page catalogue, Art from the Arctic: Masks and Ivories, will feature 125 works of art in full color.

This catalogue will present new research on the objects in this exhibit featuring essays by noted Surrealist scholars Dawn Ades, Colin Browne, and Marie Mauzé. The catalogue will also include a complete description and inventory of Yup’ik masks handled by the gallery since its inception. Edited by Donald Ellis, co-published by Donald Ellis and Black Dog Press. Pub. date: September 2015. Price: $65.00US. 

About Donald Ellis Gallery

Donald Ellis, president and founder of Donald Ellis Gallery Ltd., is widely considered the foremost dealer in the field of historical Native American art.

Established in 1976, Donald Ellis Gallery is currently celebrating its 40th year of serving private collectors, corporations, and museums in the United States, Canada and Europe. Ellis was responsible for acquiring at auction in 2006, and then securing the return to Canada, of a major portion of the famed Dundas Collection of Native America art. The gallery specializes in the art of the Inuit, Northwest Coast, and Eastern Woodlands cultures. Museums clients include: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Louvre, Abu Dhabi, UAE; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO, and Musée de quai Branly, Paris, France, among many others.

Donald Ellis Gallery exhibits annually at many prestigious art fairs, including Frieze Masters, London, and Parcours des Mondes, Paris, as well as curates special exhibitions in commercial gallery settings. Each year, the gallery publishes a highly anticipated, fully illustrated, color catalogue. For more information, please visit

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