Is this weird costume a “Siberian Bear Hunting Costume”?

In recent years, web surfers and historical curiosity buffs have marveled at a bizarre, if not sinister, costume covered in spikes from head to toe, which is most often described as a “Siberian bear hunting costume.” from the 1800s ”.

Enthusiasts have repeatedly posted the same distinctive black-and-white photograph of the outfit, to the popular Reddit online forum: in 2019; 2018; and 2014. The messages still refer to the object as a “Siberian bear hunting costume” and date it largely to the 19th century, as shown in the example below:

The remarkable photograph, and its description as a 19th century Siberian bear hunting costume, has enjoyed a to reinforce online in 2012, after being featured on the popular, now defunct, website retronaut:

He even inspired a song, called “Bear Hunting Armor”, which was released by Prague indie band Ending, in 2018. The Musical clip, the imagery of which clearly borrows heavily from the now famous photography, can be viewed below. The band themselves described the song as having been “Inspired by Siberian Bear Hunting Armor from the 1800s”.

In fact, no conclusive evidence is available as to the costume’s precise origins – its purpose, date of creation, or the geographic and cultural background from which it emerged – although it is a true historical artefact. and that the widely shared photograph of it be authentic. .

In addition, there are good reasons to doubt the accuracy of the explanation of the “Siberian bear hunt” which has become popular. As such, we assign a rating of “unproven”. If decisive evidence emerges, we will update this fact check accordingly.

The photo in question appears to have been taken by Malcolm kirk, a famous photographer based in New York. In 2012, the Victorian Adventure Enthusiast blog wrote about the artifact, claiming to have confirmed to Kirk’s representatives that he did take the photo.

As of July 2021, the costume itself was housed at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas – a Museum which contains the private collection of art and artefacts from Menil’s Franco-American family. The museum website presents various photographs of the costume, which is presented as part of the exhibition “Witnesses of a surrealist vision”:

The Menil Collection describes the exhibition, which opened in 1999, as follows:

This unique installation presents a culturally heterogeneous collection of more than 150 objects from the permanent collection of Menil or on long-term loan from members of the Menil family. Ritual and everyday objects, mainly from indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands and the Americas – whom the Surrealists considered to be “witnesses” to the universality of their own visual and literary artistic practices – are exhibited with 19th century European astrolabes, anamorphoscopes, and other devices that offer alternative ways of perceiving and understanding reality.

So we know the costume is real, who it belongs to and where it has been displayed for the past 20 years, and we know that the widely shared photograph is genuine, along with the name of the photographer who captured it. However, the precise origins of the costume remain elusive.

In his 2014 master’s thesis, available in full here, Kristen Strange of Arizona State University has written at length and in great detail on “Witnesses to a Surreal Vision.”

As part of her research, she reviewed documents relating to the acquisition of the costume, which was also frequently referred to as “Wildman,” as well as correspondence involving Dominique de Menil, co-founder of the museum, with her husband, John; their daughter, Adélaïde de Ménil; and Edmund Carpenter, Adelaide’s husband and American anthropologist who originally organized the exhibition.

Despite his careful examination of these documents and archives, Strange found no evidence to definitively pin down the suit’s exact origins, but did uncover some interesting background information and clues that the outfit may in fact have originated from Germany. or from 18th or 19th century Switzerland. , rather than 19th century Russia. She wrote:

The Savage Man, an essential object in the early planning stages of the exhibition, was called “the porcupine man” in the correspondence between Dominique de Menil and Edmund Carpenter.

… Carpenter was probably drawn to the Wildman’s weird look and tale, and displayed this costume in his office for many years before it was included in “Witnesses.” There has been some uncertainty about the original culture of this object and its original destination. Although it is now believed to have originated from 18th or 19th century Germany or Switzerland, this costume presumably represents a folk figure seen at the Vogel Gryff Festival in Basel, but it was also considered a costume. bear hunting.

… Its provenance dates back to an auction on December 6, 1974 at the Palais Galliera [in Paris], where it was purchased by Adelaide de Menil and Carpenter. The file provides additional documentation and explains that this costume is accompanied by a handwritten note indicating that it once belonged to the “Adamson (naturalists) collection which gave their name to surreal seashells”.

While The Wildman’s true origins remain uncertain, it appears he was described as a bear hunting costume as early as 1998, and possibly before that. In November of the same year, famous conservator Barbara Appelbaum wrote an email to her colleagues at the Global Conservation Forum, seeking advice on using Beva, a specialized adhesive popular among restaurateurs.

In his email, she described the artifact she was working on at the time in terms that strongly suggest that it was The Wildman, especially since her email arrived just a few months before the opening of the exhibition “Witnesses of a surrealist vision” at the Menil Collection. However, it should be noted that in his email Appelbaum questioned the article’s “bear hunting” description:

The item is called a Siberian Bear Hunting Suit, but I suspect it is more likely bear hunting than hunting, as I can’t imagine anyone running around in the woods inside. It consists of leather pants and jacket (and iron helmet) studded with 1 inch iron studs about 3/4 inch apart from each other. The nails are held in place by a second layer of leather that lines the whole and quilted in place between the nails. In areas of wear and flex, such as around the ankles and crotch, the inner layer of leather is worn away, causing the nails to fall out.

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