Emil Nolde’s “Masks II, 1920 – Totalitarian and Post-totalitarian Populations and Their, Correspondingly, Traditionally Totalitarian and Neo-totalitarian Leaders

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Emil Nolde, “Masks II”, 1920

Look at the exclamatory mask in the very center of Nolde’s canvass – with grey face, dark internality, predatory mouth and bloody eyelids encircling greedy eyes which are searching for dissimilar others to victimize them, and with teeth hurt by the human flesh. Pay attention to the color of this mask-face’s teeth – the same as the flesh of the two peripheral masks (one on the extreme left and the other on the extreme right of the canvass) representing, it seems, the human masses, population “ruled” by the grey – traditionally-totalitarian, and the purple-red – neo-totalitarian, leaders.

Four masks which we see in the painting, grouped by Nolde into two “pairs”. The masks of the left pair are in frontal visual relations with the viewers, while the masks of the right pair are represented in profile, as if, their users don’t want to be recognized for what they really are and prefer to keep their enigmatic nature. The two left masks-faces (grey and yellow) have a widely opened holes for eyes, as if the darkness (of immoral intention, as in grey mask, or suffering, as in yellow one) is their very gaze, while in the two masks-faces on the right of the canvass the eyes are, as if, closed, and their facial expressions, as if, is controlled and enigmatic, as it happens with people who try to hide their real thoughts. The mouths of the masks on the left are opened with artificial smiles (in yellow mask this is forced smile, as if the person was intimidated, while in a grey mask the smile is shining and showy). We are shocked by the drastic absence in the grey mask-face of many teeth. The two masks on the right of a canvass (which are turned away from the people) are not only with closed eyes, but with closed mouths as well.

The grey and melancholically red-blue (blended into purplish) masks are dominating over their yellow counterparts by imposing themselves on them. It seems important that if dominating masks are of different colors, dominated ones are both yellow (we have a deal here with different types of domination). In the left “couple” the grey mask impresses us with its thick and healthy beard, while the yellow (barbarically turned upside down) mask-face has a disastrously few and thin – wispy hair, mockingly put “in line” with the grey mask’s beard. By the contrast, the protagonists symbolized by the masks to the right part of the canvass are, as if, hygienically cultivated – they are without any discernable hair or any beard. As we see, similarity between the “two mask couples” is not symmetrical. The left two masks are not only different in color (like masks located to the right of the canvass), but are different in their type of vertical position (one – the grey, corresponds to the “normal” position of human body, while another – the yellow, refers to the body which is violently mistreated), and also left masks are different in the types of smiles (fake in the grey mask-face and forced in the yellow one). Besides, on the left yellow mask-face we see the projection of greyness from the grey one in the form of grey blotches and spots, while it is not the case with the yellow mask positioned on the right side, which is just slightly shadowed by the purplish leader.

The left couple then points at traditional totalitarian leader and sadistically manipulated by him traditional totalitarian population that forced to smile while suffering from deprivations, fears and physical abuse. On the other hand, the right couple of masks refers to a post-traditional totalitarian society, where leaders are much more sophisticated oppressors. They follow ruling principle of consumerist prosperity, filling people with goods which make masses satisfied like kids are happy with toys, and forgetful about more “adult” concept of freedom than freedom to eat not healthy food and consume cheap and psychologically degrading entertainment (the facial expression of silent stupefied satisfaction in the yellow mask to the right of canvass is impressive).

The gray mask representing the traditional totalitarian leader (with his opened and lacking teeth mouth) promising a future tense happiness (look at the bravado cheerfulness of his facial expression) – reminds the masses that the price of this future happiness is material deprivation in present life. No such contradictions can be detected in relations between the post-traditional totalitarian leader (with his Mephistophelian mask-face) and mass society of consumerism. Of course, the facial expression of this post-traditionally totalitarian leader is tricky – he, obviously, doesn’t share with the masses what he really thinks, but people are noticeably happy, and their nose (so long that there is not enough place for it on the canvass) is always ready to be moved in any direction by robotic fingers of the rulers (according to the proverb about being led by the nose) into a paradise, here not communist by the technocratic.

Traditional repression is based on deprivation (metaphorized by the broken-and-missing teeth of the traditionally-totalitarian leader’s mask – the feature signifying people’s everyday life made by him austere and miserable), but the post-traditional repression is based on immediate seduction of the people by material pseudo-prosperity. More exactly, even traditional repression, as Nolde shows us, has a smiling face – with promise of happiness, and in this sense, it also is based on seduction, but on suspended – “spiritual” one, future oriented, not material one in actual sense (material happiness is promised, but not in present tense, as in post-traditional repressive society). The similar color of the marginally left mask and the marginally right one identifies the populations of the two types of political system. If in the mask symbolizing the traditional totalitarian masses the yellow color is marked by greyness characterizing traditional totalitarian system, the mask to the right, representing the prosperous crowd, carry on its yellow surface only a shadow of the post-traditional leader.

The tyrant and the obedient population of the left masks-couple echoes the Mephistophelian post-traditional totalitarian leader and the happy consumer of the right one. In the left mask-couple people know that they are not happy, but in the right one they think that they are happy at the price of freedom of self-determination, the inability to make any productive choices outside the financially calculated ones. In both situations you cannot find yourself outside the opportunities provided by decision-makers.

Still, the centrality of a tt-leader (traditionally-totalitarian leader) on the canvass tells us that traditional totalitarianism still keeps a dominant role over post-traditional. Today, this fact is confirmed by the success of Drum-Trumpet in 2016 American Presidential election, by the growing popularity of conservative and neo-conservative political parties in Europe, with right-wing ideas, and by the new wars which are in a process of being prepared by an overwhelming American military spending roughly equal to that of the all other countries of the world put together. Emil Nolde’s intuition again proved to be prophetic. Bizarre and “fuzzy” images sometimes are smarter than ideas and concepts, and intuitive visions can be more truthful than scientific predictions.