This exhibition, featuring more than 100 pieces and curated by Luis Puelles and Lourdes Moreno, explores how masks changed the representation of the human figure in modern art. Initially having a traditional, festive use linked to carnivals and fancy-dress costume, which lingered on in early avant-garde art in depictions of characters from the Commedia dell’arte, masks came to be identified with the grotesque in Goya’s work and emerged as a reference for portraying the face in modern art as a result of the influence of ethnographic masks of non-European cultures in the early 20th century.
Mirroring the sequence of a metamorphosis, the exhibition examines how masks were used in art as something absolute, beyond their well-known traditional associations with rituals, magic, the theatre and costume, showing how they went from being objects to artistic images. It traces the evolution of masks from physical objects –tangible elements placed over faces to conceal or replace them – to the gradual abandonment of the presence behind them, eventually leading to their loss of materiality and independence from the face and, ultimately, to the merging of mask and face into a new and ambiguous identity in modern portraiture.
Supernatural masks. The artists of the early avant-garde period became increasingly interested in non-western ritual masks as sources of inspiration for shattering the codes of figurative representation and imbuing works with new meanings and varied nterpretations. Modern artists’ espousal of the aesthetic principles associated with the ‘primitive’ – simplicity, coarseness, spirituality, a hieratic appearance –marked the abandonment of the academic conventions of beauty and harmony and from then onwards the mask acted as a modern synthesis of the human face.
Over the course of history artists have turned to masks and fancy-dress costume as strategies for shaping new identities. Carnival celebrations are a paradigmatic example of the collective release of irrational urges through masks. They are a means of subverting the rules and giving free rein to the most basic instincts. We find similar strategies in the theatre, where characters wear masks and are protected by a physical barrier between reality and appearance, in a universe that combines the grotesque, the comic and caricature.
As the last link in the genealogical chain of the presence of masks in the complex modern identity, we find portraits where faces function as ‘inhuman’ masks, with no communicative depth. The triumph of subjectivity, the absence of dogmas and loss of interest in achieving likeness gave rise to a repertoire of identities that were ambiguous, fragmented, disfigured, alienated or concealed by makeup. These ‘faceless’ portraits are an appropriate expression of today’s contradictory society.
Bilingual catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition
The catalogue, illustrated with 147 colour plates, includes texts by the exhibition curators Luis Puelles Romero, Professor of Aesthetics and Art Theory at the UMA, Lourdes Moreno, Director of the Carmen Thyssen Museum in Malaga, and contributions from the Museum’s curatorial team.
In the following links you can see two videos of the exhibition:
Museo Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Málaga From 28 July 2020 to 10 January 2021
Julio Gonzalez. Máscara austera. 1940
Walt Kuhn, Boy with chistera, 1948