On the 12th March 2019 it will be 150 years since Aron from Kangeq died – and despite the fact that the day of death does perhaps not need be commemorated, this particular artist should indeed be highlighted to such degree.
Aron from Kangeq is in his own way the forefather of modern Greenlandic art – with artists up to our own day acknowledging his talent and importance, and letting themselves be inspired by his works and writings. This even though his works passed into oblivion for nearly hundred years after his death, and first obtained their place in the art history of Greenland only in the 1960s, when the artist and polar explorer Eigil Knuth (1903–1996) discovered the collection in the National Museum of Denmark. In 1982 the collection was returned to the National Museum of Greenland, where it still is. It had been gathered by Hinrich Rink in the 1850s and ‘60s and handed over to the National Museum of Denmark in 1905 by his wife Signe Rink. A part of the collection was then transferred to the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Oslo after Signe Rink’s death, and is still to be found there.
Nuuk Art Museum has two woodcuts by Aron from Kangeq on show in its permanent exhibition, loaned from Greenland National Museum and Archives. Qasapi kills Uungortoq (d. Qasapi dræber Uunngortoq) and The ballgame (d. Boldspillet) – both illustrations of legends that Aron recorded here. The woodcuts are not originals, they are copies realised with Aron’s printing tools. Apart from them, the museum owns a piece from the series Homage til Aron by Anne-Birthe Hove (1951–2012), which features one of Aron’s works – a woodcut from the legend of Aqissiaq.
ENLIGHTENMENT AND ART
Bodil Kaalund (1930–2016) defined 19th century as Greenland’s Enlightenment. She seems to attribute such Enlightenment time particularly to the establishment of a written Greenlandic language, of a school (d. seminarie) for Greenlandic teachers and of a printing house, along with the person of Hinrich Rink (1819–1893).* Indeed, when talking about Aron from Kangeq, one does not possibly get round Rink or this period in the history of Greenland.
Hinrich Rink took part in establishing a Greenlandic administrative council (the predecessor of the later Home Rule Government and Self-Government), he started a printing house and the newspaper Atuagdluitit, and published books on the geographic and administrative situation of the country, its language and culture. In 1858 he spread an invitation to all Greenlanders to submit stories, legends, maps and drawings, which were later edited and published both in a Danish and Greenlandic version. The underlying idea of such enterprise was that in order for Greenlanders to assert themselves as a nation, they needed to gain awareness of their own history – as Kirsten Thisted writes in an extensive work in two volumes about Aron from Kangeq.**
Apart from his wife Signe, in Nuuk Rink could rely on assistance from the language researcher Samuel Kleinschmidt (1814–1886), from the Greenlandic teachers, poets and drawers, the first editor of Atugagdluitit Rasmus Berthelsen (1827–1901), curate C.H. Rosen and the young Lars Møller (1842–1926), later an editor of Atugagdluitit for many years. After all, it is no coincidence that Nuuk has an Aqqaluks Plads (square, after Lars Møller’s nickname Aqqaluk), an Atuarfik Samuel Kleinschmidt (school) and a H.J. Rinks Vej (street).
These people handled the submitted material, printed and published it in several languages, and provided the informants, artists and authors with all the paper and art supplies they needed. The scanty material, that reached Greenland by ship, was provided among others also to Aron. Aron submitted 56 legends and we know of 350 works he produced. He was not just one among many, he was actually responsible for most part of the first edition of “Kalladlit ássilialiait”, from 1860.
Aron belonged to the Moravian mission, he was a hunter and a catechist and was therefore able to read and write. His father Christian Hendrik was a catechist too and he also submitted stories and drawings. So it was for many of the self-taught artists from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century – they came from families in which others too had a talent for drawing.
Regardless of those, like Kaalund, calling the 19th century an Enlightenment time, a certain thing happened there that surely changed Greenlandic art. A new word for “art” emerged: ‘eqqumiitsuliorneq’ (meaning something strange or peculiar that is made). As Hanne Kirkegaard explains in her article “Eqqumiitsuliorneq – a peculiar word”*** this is a concept that came forth in the 19th century: a word for art as such, and not as decoration and ornament – like, for instance, a beautifully decorated hunting tool. Kaalund brings attention to this word too – the artists of the new time created images intended to reproduce or represent something.* Aron from Kangeq belongs exactly in this context – in other words, his works fall within the denotation of eqqumiitsuliorneq, which nowadays simply means “art”.
In Europe too did the word “art” (d. kunst) change meaning over the 19th century: from having been precisely an embellishment, decoration or symbol of power and wealth in churches, royal castles and palaces, to being art as art. Something that represents or reproduces something else, and something that the public gains now access to: at first with the royal cabinets of curiosities (d. kunstkammer), then in the 19th century with the emerging museums housing large national collections – besides, obviously, through printing.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF LEGENDS
As legends and stories where written down and illustrated, they were conserved for the future. Aron from Kangeq has been inspiring artists up to our very day. He was, for example, one of the sources of inspiration for the writer and artist Hans Lynge (1906–1988); he also worked with mythical matter from Greenland in his art. Kirsten Thisted writes in the afterword to the Danish edition and translation of Hans Lynge’s The Will of the Unseen (d. Den Usynlige Vilje):
Aron from Kangeq deeply understood what it means to be a human being: not as an isolated entity, as an organism or body closed onto itself, rather under the influence of and in constant dialog with one’s sex, age, family, the surrounding society, the culturally conditioned longing for freedom and the relative repression.****
Artist Anne-Birthe Hove produced a whole series of graphic pieces titled Homage til Aron, where she blended in his motives and significance.*****
Her work in Nuuk Art Museum dates back to 1997. She used a woodcut by Aron about the legend of Aqissiaq, where he pushes a troll (gl. igalilik) off a cliff edge. Below that she added five people in a row, sitting in front of a television. The work is titled Aqissiaq : 20.00 and was realised with photogravure (a technique by which a photography is transferred in print) and other graphic techniques. Hove added to the otherwise black-and-white woodcut also the rocky bottom and a mountain in the background.
The woodcut used in Anne-Birthe Hove’s work was engraved by Markus Lynge, from Nuuk, after a drawing by Aron. Conversely, The ball game and Qasapi kills Uungortoq are both drawn and engraved by Aron himself. It was not uncommon for artists and storytellers to collaborate over distance – there the communication was perhaps mediated by Rink. Bodil Kaalund notes that while Aron uses more linear hatching and grey tones to indicate different surfaces and depth, Markus Lynge works more with black and white in his woodcuts, with wide white areas left without hatching.*
Graphics as a medium have played a big role in the art history of Greenland – and by creating this “homage” Hove highlights not least a line that connects her all the way back to Aron. Nivi Christensen wrote in a volume about Anne-Birthe Hove that while in his art Aron took first and foremost an interest in the choice of subjects, Hove was engaged to just as high a degree also in the choice of materials and techniques. Aron did simply not have that many techniques and materials to choose from: woodcut, drawing, and watercolours.
Does Hove remarks, in Aqissiaq : 20.00, that the legends are the past, and TV has along with other media taken over oral narration? Or, rather, that we can never escape the past, that the old legends are always alive and valid, and that in a moment the troll will plummet straight down on the TV and those watching? It shall be up to the viewers of Aqissiaq : 20.00 how past and present meet, in the subject as well as between the artists.
Aron from Kangeq died 12th March 1869 of tuberculosis, after a long illness.
* Bodil Kaalund: Grønlands Kunst, Gyldendal, 3rd ed., 2011 (1979).
** Kirsten Thisted: ”Således skriver jeg, Aron”, Atuakkiorfik, 1999.
*** Hanne Kirkegaard: “Eqqumiitsuliorneq – et mærkeligt ord”, pp. 4-5, In: Neriusaaq 3/2018.
**** Kirsten Thisted: “Efterord – Hans Lynge (1906-1988)” pp. 157-179, In: Lynge, Hans: Den Usynlige Vilje, Gladiator, 2018.
***** The whole series Homage til Aron can be viewed in the catalogue of Anne-Birthe Hove’s works: https://annebirthehove.com/?s=homage+til+Aron
****** Nivi Christensen: “Fra Aron til Hove”, pp. 57-73, In: Jørgen Chemnitz (ed.): Anne-Birthe Hove, Milik Publishing, 2016.