Emil Nolde’s “Still life with Masks”, 1911 – Three Ages of Conservative Sensibility and Failure of Liberal Happy Hopes

Faces Like Masks VS Mask Like Face – Nobility And Weakness Of Democratic Sensibility

Still Life with Masks IV, 1911 (oil on canvas)
Emil Nolde, “Still life with Masks”, 1911

From the four masks which Nolde represents in his “Still life with Masks” (1911), three signify, it seems, the phases of conservative psyche’s (CP) life, and one – the psychological essence of liberal position in life of Western democracies in the end of 20th and the beginning of 21st century. The composition of the painting emphasizes that people with conservative sensibility occupy three quarters of the socio-existential space while those with liberal sensitivity are marginalized into just one quarter. In other words, liberals today are in the corner of life, while CP is dynamic and nomadic (today it means – globalist), but also – pushy, full of retrograde energy, confidently self-advertising and self-imposing. The contrast between the facial expressions of the three conservative mask-faces – a child’s, a man in his middle age, and a warrior, and, on the other hand, the gentle and sensitive liberal face tells us, that Nolde, indeed, knew very well the moments of agony of the soul, connected with being victimized by the violent political vibrations of social field.

Can’t the facial expression of the liberal soul locked into the right upper corner of the canvass (into the corner of socio-cultural whole) be defined as the protagonist’s shy moral disappointment with societal values and norms? May be, it even can be interpreted as human soul’s weeping hopes, a wounded skepticism of immanent intelligence. Our frustrated believer in the victory of human goodness! In the irresistibility of democratic norms of life! Our almost old man with a youthful soul, with a meek smile and a grimace, as if, asking for forgiveness without any wrong doing! How insulted he feels in front of the plebeian neo-conservative rudeness and organic and orgiastic militancy! His eyes radiate a modest – a skeptical knowledge that in spite of his dreams and delicate actions nothing good can happen, because of right wing brutality and cruelty is triumphantly everywhere. The gentle idealistic eyes of the liberal see that the background of human life (the backdrop of the painting) – is the darkness mixed with blood. The gaze of this delicate and peaceful man is a gaze of sensitivity to the meaning of this darkness. The gazes of the conservatives are also dark, but by another reason – they‘re the carriers of darkness.

The gaze of the ducky conservative child (mask on top left corner of the painting) shows the general, “preventive” (mobilized in advance) fear of the environment, feature which will define the fully developed CP with its militancy, future wars, torture, menaces and blackmails. For these people the world is dangerous by “definition” – it is deadly and must be preventively, preemptively controlled, manipulated and repressed by power and through money. From their early childhood diffused fears, dogmas, ultimatums and corporeal punishments have determined their dominating posture in the world (the mask right under the first one, where we see adult right wing conservative with poisonously-green face). The “facial” expression of this mask is the desire to be… “denser”, “more solid” than the world, “thicker” and impenetrable for what is outside. Fear as background emotion creates a face which is like a body-fort, a body-wall of conservative middle age, with a flesh that is thick and springy and is ready not only for clash and conflict with the world, but for the “first strike”. The medieval collar, encircling this mask from underneath as a halo from hell, tells us that conservatives play aristocratic justification for their intolerance for the world – they mixed the wealth with culture, the swelled closet with genealogical tree, they feel contempt towards human flesh not defended by money and weapon.

The third age of the fanatic conservative’s destiny is the phase of massive destruction of the world which they see as competitive challenge to their will and might (the red-dark mask-shield on the lower right corner of the painting). Conservative (trying to bend the world by their will, never collaborating with otherness) powers in history are prone to create spectacular destructions (sometimes with apocalyptic overtones). And the tears keep coming out of the eyes of Nolde’s timid and gentle liberal – tears metaphorized by a rope crossing his left eye. Pay attention to the monstrous black lines on the very forehead of our carrier of humanism. Is it Nolde’s parody on his scrupulous scholarly perception of the world? On his tireless thinking? On his ideological grief? Is Nolde, from hundred years ago, using his prophetic intuition, accusing him of being accomplice of neocon crimes against life just by being unable to do more than grieving in a private corner, unable to accept martyrdom? He, with his smile of suffering, understood that the eclipse of morally decent life is to come. He suffers the burden of his understanding. He comprehends the truth. The dark – red-brown truth marked him forever.