Emil Nolde’s “Maskenstilleben” (1915) – Masks As Still life Of Facial Expressions

Masks As The Unconscious Mythological Attempt Of The Artist To Survive Human Death

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E.Nolde, “Maskenstilleben”, 1915

Masks are still lives of facial expressiveness, it is what essence is to appearance. But masks are not only the victory of the emotional essence of a concrete facial expression over this expression. Masks, as if, “use” the opposition between essence and appearance to win two times – on the side of the essence and on the side of appearance, and by this they help both sides, unite them. Masks are life frozen into death right in the moment of life’s (facial expressiveness) victory – in Nolde’s theater of not faces and facial expressions, but that of the essence of human emotions paradoxically representing itself as alive human emotions (in masks).

Facial expression is, as if, the first mask of the face, but the “heat” of the essence in this situation is not strong enough to brand on the face expression’s emotional code. It is necessary to have a real mask to achieve this task.

In Nolde’s “Maskenstilleben” (1915) we have four masks – four planets (hanging by the gravitation) which, it seems, signify the psychological archetypes of human existential positions. The first mask symbolizes a youth, ripe and juicy, with a smile which is a bit confused, youth lost in the world but still with a mindless optimism invitingly opened to the unknown. The mask of youth is partially covered, as if, superseded by two masks representing two aspects of basically the same reaction on youth, and simultaneously – the next phase of human life. The left mask – the green mask-face towering above the sunny face of the youth symbolizes indignant and righteous/judgmental position towards youth. It is moralistic denial of youth’s value. And the right mask is a sarcastic mocking of youth – its imperfections: naiveté, proneness for self-absorption, its impulsiveness.

The fourth mask (to the right of the canvass) symbolizes the final phase of human life – the torments of dying projected onto a dark-blue face with dark-green areas (this dark-green color dominates the left – hateful mask and partially present in the middle, laughing one). The fourth mask-face (with desperately bloody lips) greedily and miserably appeals for mercy. This mask of dying is not only the end of youth, it is a revenge for humans for being young once and believing in life, for knowing youth, for forgetting everything that is not living.

The generously pink backdrop of the painting (fortissimo-pink) is a boilingly sarcastic view of human vitality and optimism without borders. The dark- or, sometimes the light-blueness filling inside of human eyes and mouths is a hint that death (and paradisiacal dreams enveloping it) enters human beings through sight or taste or meanings. And, may be, it is not entering the human body at all, but it’s always already there as a blind blend of non-being in emptiness and eternity in foolish fullness. In this sense Nolde’s point can be that dying is the essence of living – the dark-light-blue eye-mouth is the common denominator of all four masks. In this sense, the triumph of liveliness of Nolde’s masks’ is the tragedy of human destiny as simply an extension of a naïve consumption of living. The glory of art is the only immortality available to human beings, the poor one, no doubt, with holes, tears and tatters.

Then what is the difference between human portraits and masks of human faces? Can masks do for us what paintings cannot? Or, better, are there reasons for us to expect that masks can be ahead of portraits? May be, here we are getting closer to finding the metaphysical attractiveness of the very genre of painting masks?