Malcolm Yates Knight—Masks and Visages, September 2019 What’s in a face? A human face? What are its shapes and proportions? Can we read a person’s character from a face and its individual anatomical features, its physiognomy? What happens when we cover a face with a false face or mask? How much of what we see in a visage translates between one culture and another? A study of the evolution of the human face in terms of biology–skin and bone—and genetics reveals an enormous diversity of possible shapes and proportions. The total configuration of a face in terms of inheritance, gender, age, culture and race is even more complicated to assess when the same face is covered with a mask. The American poet Carl Sandberg wrote a short poem called ‘Phizzog’ to highlight some of these issues in relation to what we are born with (nature) and what we are able to change or are changed by (nurture). It reads as follows: This face you got. This here phizzog. You didn’t get it by yourself did you? Somebody came along and gave it to you and said ‘there’s yours, now go and see what you can do with it’. This face you got, this here phizzog. Since the dawn of time, it would appear that human beings have been preoccupied with the variations in a phizzog or visage.
The English artist Jonathan Baldock has produced a series of large rectangular ceramic tiles that ‘hover on the edge of figuration’, as Edward Ball has stated. Eyes, noses and mouths are etched and punched into the clay and subsequently finished with colourful glazes that range from purple to tangerine, bright pink to dark grey, insipid rose to bright yellow. Into these visages ‘on the edge’ he has incorporated elements of emojis that populate our contemporary social media exchanges. They also contain ripples and folds, some with button eyes and ears, some without nose, others with beady eyes and slits stuffed with straw. We seem to be in a codified world full of unsettling clues but without a clear, final definition, echoing some of the faces that could be found on buildings and hieroglyphics in ancient Peru, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
A mask is an enigmatic tool. A strange object. Petrified in the gallery or a museum it takes on the status of a work of art and becomes the object for our contemplation. Animated on the stage of a theatre or in the street it takes on the life of another, or sometimes the ‘holy otherness’ of a spirit or demon, and becomes the object of our own involvement instead. The study of features and temperaments encrypted within human facial expressions is probably older than the wheel, the bow and the harpoon. Old works of physiognomy are full of interpretations about the important ‘signs’ to be found in the face: from Aristotle to Paracelsus, from Avicenna to Leonardo da Vinci, from Della Porta to Lavater, writings on physiognomy abound with the assertion that there are consistent relationships between someone’s personality and their facial features. The belief that character can be ‘read’ from the face is indeed as ancient as it is widespread, and to get this process, of decoding a face, wrong would indeed involve the perpetration of a ‘face-crime’.
In his Anatomy for Artists (1881), the French anatomist Matthias-Marie Duval decided to focus on the direction of the lines produced by the expressive muscles of the face as if they acted in isolation from each other. In twelve key designs, he portrayed them as follows: the frontalis (forehead: suggesting attention or astonishment); the orbicularis oculi (surrounding the eyes: reflection or meditation); the procerus (bridge of the nose: harshness, menace, aggression); the corrugator (eyebrows: sorrow); the zygomaticus major (cheeks: laughter); the levator labii superioris et alae nasi (upper lip and nostrils: discontent or grief); the levator labii (along the nose: extreme grief with tears); the compressor naris (nose: attention or sensuousness); the orbicularis oris (around the mouth: pouting or pulling in of lips); the depressor anguli oris (chin: contempt); the depressor labii inferioris (also chin: disgust); and the platysma (neck and lower chin: anger, pain, torture or extreme emotion). In Jonathan Baldock’s ceramic masks we can see the directions of these same muscle group lines being played with to great effect.
Among the great traditions of masking, however, no mask is an isolated unit. There are a multitude of genres, each offering great heterogeneity and diversity. Behind each mask hides an idea, and behind each idea resides a historical grouping and a larger belief system. In anthropological terms, in order to understand the meaning of a mask we must first locate the precise time, place and culture in which it came into being. Moreover, since it is an entity shaped by specific methods and techniques as well as the vehicle of an idea or symbol, we must discover the purpose to which it was intended to be put. To decode this purpose is rarely simple. When the mask is worn in performance, for instance, the play of movement and light and the body of the performer changes it from a fixed face into an animated hieroglyph. It becomes a means of exchange, a transmutation of energy, a sharing of multiple expressions. A gift. And what happens when someone tries to commercialise a gift?
The Greeks called the mask and the visage ‘prosopon’ or character, but this word was also used for the stamp on a coin to depict a recognisable person. The Romans called it ‘persona’ in Latin, from ‘personare’, ‘to sound through’. For the Italian actors of the Commedia dell’Arte a mask was both a stock character and a social type. In Japanese Noh theatre it was said to contain yugen, or the spirit of beauty. In the European folk and carnival tradition it was known as a larvae or masca, signifying the presence of a demon or a witch. In the Middle East a maskharat is a veil. What, then, is a mask? What, then, is a visage?
The temptation to answer these questions by adopting some seductive and unifying psychological theory is great. Are we dealing with concealment of real drives within an individual personality, or revelations about universal facial features? Clearly the mask takes away the visage that we know and puts something else in its place. In addition, it does something that cannot be done unaided. It represents a material object, artificially produced through which specific elements of a visage peak. The act of masking, even in sculpted clay, made with a pastry cutter, is concerned with highlighting distinctions between appearance and reality. Things are not as they seem.
Reassuring aphorisms aside, the problem is that all aspects of the spectrum of human thought and ways of seeing may be shown by masks and faces – whether they range from figurative realism to surrealism, or appear as minimalist abstractions. This is why so many artists have been drawn to explore masks and faces, including Breughel, El Greco, Goya, Ensor, Picasso, Dali, Ernst, Giacometti, Magritte, Munch, Rivera, to name but a few. Disconnecting masks and visages from the people who devise them includes the error of attributing a particular group of masks and faces to society as a whole. To do so not only merely conceals the immense divergences always present within – the continuity or heresy and objection – but also to align oneself with those that formulate and perpetuate that belief system. Therefore, if the recurrent masking of the human face represents a recurring way of thinking or seeing, we have to wonder if any such way can be considered ‘basic’ or ‘universal’ across history, across cultures, and across ideologies.
The history of the mask does not unfold without interruption in accordance with some linear idea of progress from the ‘primitive’ to the modern. Its development is marked by ruptures and twists aligned with the onset of social change in rising and declining civilisations. Even in societies based on traditional tribal orthodoxies, in which masks are designed to represent a social and cultural unanimity or consensus – to bring rain, worship ancestors, improve crops, celebrate a birth, facilitate an initiation, mark a funeral – we understand their function in legitimising the dominant social group. Equally, however, they can be the product of the revolts that punctuate ortodoxies, think, for instance, of medieval carnival masks, Austria’s Perchtenmasken, Korean T’al Chum, or Sandinista and IRA face masks. In other words, a mask, false face or visage is about certain beliefs within society. It can be used equally to uphold or subvert conventions. It is about particular beliefs and particular social groups. A mask is neither practical reality nor pure ideology, rather it should be regarded as a focal point within which concerns of culture, legitimation and ideology are worked out. Witness, at the time of writing, a protestor outside the Houses of Parliament wearing a giant head mask of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, digging a grave with a spade, burying democracy!
Jonathan Baldock has been working with masks as icon and symbol in his work for over ten years. His sculptural assemblages in a gallery space bring the viewer, the object and the space into sharp relief. In one image you can see Duval’s straight-line and stylised eyebrows in a Christ-like expression underpinned by two yellow button-eyed emojis within a pink visage flanked by two figurative ears and pouting lips. The resulting expression is one of ambivalence: one emoji eye seems sad and depressed while the other is playful and tricksy. The tension between facial patterns and facial features brings us into more scientific territory, which includes the introduction of emojis and facial recognition systems for our digital human age. The artist invites us to question the faces that we meet, to interrogate our own faces and to get a handle on the fleeting expressions in front of our eyes. In the words of the Austrian playwright, Yvan Goll, we can see in the masks that ‘Non-reality has become a fact’. We can also observe that Mary Shelley’s ‘loathsome mask’ has not fallen and is still very much in place. Indeed, Baldock’s work raises the question if the majority of past societies used masks as a way of negotiating reality. If that were the case, then why shouldn’t we?