As much as no one wants to admit it, people have been trying to shoo the world away from masks for centuries. The evidence is in our ancient history, nowhere more evident than in mythology. As two previously published papers in this month’s Journal of Archaeological Science document, masks have been a part of early forms of art for many thousands of years. You will notice they can be seen on the head and arm of the mycology genus, which are used in ecology, history, and evolution. They were first imagined by artists at the end of the Middle Ages, and later painted on “monks’ and priests’ heads,” mask-pantis, and written masks and worshippers’ tombs.
Today, masks and masks of several different levels exist. There are the simple models I think of in my mind when I’m reading the works of Shakespeare and of Ben Jonson. There are more painterly masks with designs and patterns applied to them. Then there are what I call “pure” masks, made of strands and tattered thread or something more general. The most fun ones are the skull masks I’ve seen so often in American rock and roll concerts and which have taken the latex mask fashion to its new level of high art.
There are three often-quoted and celebrated great artists of the 16th- and 17th-century who have made masks in the main the standard use of the field: the English poet and early painter William Blake and his contemporaries John Tenniel, with whom Blake shared an affinity, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, the artist most interested in the idea of masks being metaphors for religious imagery. Art historians generally agree Murillo first came into prominence with his paintings of saints and saints alongside saints (masques, masks, et cetera) killed in the Spanish inquisition, but Blake and Murillo have different ideas about the nature of masks.
Murillo wanted to be seen as being at once both active and passive in human affairs, while Blake wanted the mask to be a secret, a forbidden part of the human body, the one place of being totally alone, almost like a narcotic. Murillo was strongly opposed to making masks, because in his view they only add to the confusion and confusion that are part of the role of the artist. And even when he does it for the sake of art, his gestures and manner were, for the most part, done with painterly skill and sensibility rather than real-life hiss and panic, as Blake’s are described.
Somewhere between these two extremes is a perception of the best way to produce a good mask. Murillo’s semi-masque masks of the 15th century have a more literal approach to masks than Blake’s “double mask de génération” of the 16th century. Blake’s artistic masks are traditionally thought to be very similar to animals, in which case they represent a metaphor for a bigger, non-primal experience such as the wilderness of Dante’s Divine Comedy or what he calls “the visual aspect of relief,” with its vegetation, exuberant and rumbling colours, bending shapes, and ricocheting movement. This is a nod to Rembrandt’s 1626 Mask of the Czarnikovs I, which is also thought to be based on a beast.
Blake was more concerned with some potential more negative aspects of masks: They were hard to do, hard to wear and difficult to take care of and discipline over time. Staggering in changes and causing unexpected problems for them, we have to stop using them, right? Wrong.
In his 2015 tract “La Voix Humaine” Blake wrote, “It is a magnificent and extraordinary gift and awe to create a very fine mask. Nothing else does so much for your power. Do not lose that privilege!” That seems to be the case in both the pre- and post-Christian world.