Introduction to Semiotics of Cultures, 2010
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Vesa Matteo Piludu
University of Helsinki
 Lévi-Strauss was strongly interested in art
 He mentioned how his father was a painter and even the huncle
 Reference to Poussin, Clouet, Ingres, Max Ernst
 Deep love for Wagner, considered a mythologist
 Debussy, Richard Strauss
Art is difference
 If the humans are different, is for their art
Cultures has styles
 Each culture has a style, as art
 The art is able to express feelings, that its impossible to express into
other languages: is not object of translation
New York Museum of Natural History
 Magic place were the tree speaks
Lévi-Strauss and Boas
 Lévi-Strauss was impressed by the art of the Kwakiutl
 Boas answered: “they are Indians like the all the others!”
 Franz Boas was part of the scramble for artifacts that took place
during the great age of museum building in the US and Europe from
c. 1875 to 1930. The visual representation of ethnological artifacts
was an important part of early academic research. To illustrate the
artifacts he had acquired for the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin and
the American Museum of Natural History, Boas included 173 figures
and 26 plates in his book: The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island
 Other classic: Primitive Art (1927), the path breaking book by Boas
in which his analysis of symbolism and style shatters the colonialist
racism of his age
George Hunt
 The collector of the majority of Kwakwaka'wakw artifacts in the
world's museums (including those illustrated above) was George
Hunt (1854 - 1933) Hunt (K'ixitasu') was the son of an English fur
trader at Fort Rupert and his Tlingit wife, Mary Ebbetts (Ansnaq),
daughter of Chief Tongas from Alaska.
 Hunt spoke Kwakwala and he learned how to render it in phonetic
writing. For most of his life, Hunt worked as an informant, translator
and collector for outsiders who came to Tsaxis including Israel
Powell, Jacob Adrian Jacobsen, Franz Boas and Edward Curtis.
George Hunt Family with Franz Boas (right),
Tsaxis, 1894.
Photo: Pennsylvania Museum (O. C. Hastings)
Kwakiutl Transformation Mask, ca. 1880
Cape Mudge, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Kwakiutl masks
Raven mask
 The raven mask (left)
collected at Tsaxis in 1901
by George Hunt was used
to perform the Hamatsa
dance, an important part of
the Winter Ceremonial
described in detail by Franz
 Due primarily to Hunt and
Boas, the American
Museum of Natural History
in New York has the world's
largest and finest collection
of Kwakwaka'wakw objects
The Way of the Masks
Lévi Strauss: LéviStrauss, Claude,
1982, The Way of
the Masks,
University of
Press, Seattle
 through the years, my
sentiment ... was
undermined by a lingering
uneasiness: this art posed a
problem to me which I could
not resolve. Certain masks,
all of the same type, were
disturbing because of the
way they were made. Their
style, their shape was
strange, their plastic
justification escaped
Myths and Masks
 Myths and Mask correlated
 Looking at these masks, I was ceaselessly asking myself the same
questions. Why this unusual shape, so ill-adapted to their
 Why the bird heads which have no obvious connection with the
rest and are most incongruously placed? Why the protruding
eyes, which are the unvarying trait of all the types?
 Finally, why the quasi-demonic style resembling nothing else in
the neighboring cultures, or even in the culture that gave it birth?
Masks with earthquakes,
Systrum and Egyptians
 "The Kwakiutl linked the Xwéxwé masks with earthquakes. Their
dance, wrote Boas, "is believed to shake the ground and to be a
certain means of bringing back the hamatsa," that is, the new initiate
to the highest ranking secret society, the Cannibals.
 During initiation, the novice became ferocious and wild and ran
in the woods: the objective was to bring him back to reintegrate
him in the village community. This association of the Xwéxwér; (or
Swaihwé) with earthquakes...
 throws a curious light on the symbolism of the sistrums carried by the
dancers... I draw attention to the way Plutarch explained the role of
sistrums among the ancient Egyptians: "The sistrum ... makes it
clear that all things in existence need to be shaken, or rattled
about, and never to cease from motion but, as it were , to be
waked up and agitated when they grow drowsy and torpid."
 Half scientist (categories)
 Half magician (creation from nothing, savage bricoleur mind)
 He is not only able to represent the world, but also to recreate it in
 This creations helps the humans to understand and to have an
emotive connection with the world’s spectacle
Art object
 Material object, with a surplus of knowledge and aesthetical pleasure
 Illusion that hit light intelligence
 Link between present and past

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