Emil Nolde’s “Mask Still Life III” (1911) – Life Is Blind like Youth, Happiness, Despotism and Death

Emil Nolde’s “Mask Still Life III”, 1911

Being turned upside down and squeezed – like this pink/orange face-head (second from the left) – is the destiny of being young, which dooms us to nomadic adventure through childhood to adulthood (from one planet to another), where we, who are not yet adults, feel ourselves as refugees until we become one with our new mask. In Nolde’s painting this forced mutation of our being is represented in the left half of the canvass, where we are squeezed between two masks – the red one in profile, with an intense and self-enjoying smile ripe with laughter, and the yellow one where laughter has unexpectedly turned into cry – is inseparable from cry.

We psychologically grow from our adolescence/youth to our adult perception of life between these two kinds of laughter. When we are laughing/crying – is it about our past laughter at adulthood? Or, perhaps, about this previous life back then when our yearnings we perceived as an action, in comparison with our life in adulthood which consists of conquering or being conquered? Or, are we laughing/crying about our past’s idealism and hopefulness? Our radiant narcissism? Our naïve judgmentalism? Our youthful moralism? Obviously, too many reasons for adulthood to laugh or/and cry about our childhood and youth.

We don’t have much of a choice with our two emotional/instinctive postures – laughing at adulthood and later laughing/crying about our youthful naiveté, when life for us is a projection of the gray/green old man/spirit or ghost, who not only knows the reality but creates it by his cruel mind and with his otherworldly beard, with his mouth belching commands, orders and threats.

As the two masks of our two kinds of laughter mark our destiny on the left part of the painting, the old man-the terrible with a metaphysical beard is located in an upper right part of the painting over the mask of our final condition (with giant ears opened as human arms greedy for embrace). The old despot with green-brown face is separated from the yellow mask of our adulthood and from our death-mask, with a bright yellow cord-rope. The death-mask refers not to death as something different from dying, but to very dying of a human being whose eyes are so greedy for the world of the living that they look like the eyes of a skull – the more greedy for the visual impressions a human being is, the less he is able to see. And his mouth is opened so wide as if he wants to swallow the whole world, as if, he is moaning for compassion, for air, for food. The same with the mask’s ears – the bigger they are – the deeper, the more absolute the deafness is. His/our ears are like opened hands ready to grab a world which is already no longer ours.

But it’s not only dying that is blind. Youth physically can see (we notice the pupil of the “blueish eye” of the dark-red mask), but psychologically aren’t able to – young people are turned away from life passively but energetically rolling ahead. But the eyes of all the other inhabitants of life are not able to see, neither adulthood, nor the old man-the terrible or the dying human being. Through their eyes we can see the background of the world, and this includes god or the bearded wise man. And the brightest – shining sunny yellow on the face of the dying one is the last salute from the life.

Oh, that dense smile of the young human being who is turned away from the personages of existential drama and his own destiny – the young semi-hide from the adults their laughter at them – they are in charge of life.

Dirtied rotting green is the backdrop of life, and our blind way ahead and down (emphasized by the composition of Nolde’s painting) frames the vitality Nolde’s masks radiate! How brightly the colors of ours lives shine! How generous the painters’ talent scrupulously and elegiacally depicting our way from the beginning to the end! Three masks in the painting represent the three stages of our life. One personifies somebody like a demiurge of human destiny, and the one depicts the very transition from childhood and youth to adulthood (clash of two vitalities) – the most demonic event of human destiny, much more tormenting than the final transition from dying to death.