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Friday, March 29, 2013

Fifty Shades of Scrimshaw

The National Post reveals a scrimshaw stoush

Controversy hits the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

This stunning set of whalebone teeth featuring art by the great French impressionist Gauguin deserves an exhibit all on its own.  Judging by the provenance, it was part of a collection by the hugely popular writer and sport fisherman, Zane Grey, so there is a story there, too.

However, it is merely part of an exhibition of seafarers' folk art, "Tattoos & Scrimshaw" -- which has inspired a strong complaint, because of the erotic nature of some of the scrimshaw.

As we all know, whalemen were in the habit of taking sperm whale teeth and the flat parts of sperm whale jawbones, and etching pictures on them.  Usually, the scene was of ships, whales, and whaling, drawn by the whalemen themselves, or of demure women in bell-like skirts, taken from illustrations in the huge popular magazine Godey's Lady's Book.  It was easily done -- the picture was cut out of the magazine, pasted with spit or something more lasting onto the tooth or bone, and then pricked onto the medium. After the pricking was finished, lamp black (or tobacco spit) was rubbed into the grooves, and lo, a piece of scrimshaw was born.

But, while I was aware of erotic whalemen's drawings, and erotic tattoos on human skins, along with pornographic netsuke art, this is the first time I've been aware of erotic scenes on sperm whale teeth. Even if it is considered offensive by some, it is well worth exhibiting because of its very unusual nature, and so I applaud the Vancouver Maritime Museum for doing it.

Scrimshaw has been popular ever since it was invented by whalemen, in imitation of Polynesian tattooing. One famous American whaling captain reminisced that he made more money ($25) out of the scrimshaw he sold after his first voyage than he made out of the voyage itself.  Now, a good scrimshawed tooth can fetch thousands of dollars, so there is a brisk trade in fake scrimshaw.

Are those Gauguin teeth "fakeshaw?" There were still whalemen at sea in the early twentieth century, so it is possible that they are "real" ... but it is equally possible that Zane Grey collected them simply because they are so beautiful.

See Rick Spilman's Old Salt Blog (link to the left) for more about the strange controversy, or hit the links above.


Judith said...

I read about that exhibition and the busybody lady. Some people really need to get a life! I loved the Colbert clip on the Old salt Blog.

I really enjoy your blog Joan, you uncover some really interesting things. You and Graham Beattie keep me very well informed!

Joan Druett said...

Thank you! Rick Spilman's Old Salt Blog is brilliant for seafaring news, and the inimitable Graham Beattie was the fellow who showed me how to blog.

So you complimented all the right people :)