Emil Nolde’s “Masks” (1922) – Alliance between Absolute Powers (Monarchic or Money-archic) and Demonic Psychological Energies

Three Personages As The Foreground Of A World Burned And Transformed Into Ashes By A Man-made (Apocalyptic) Holocaust

This painting was banned by the Nazi regime and exhibited at the Degenerate art (Entartete Kunst) exhibition in Munich in 1937. During this exposition the most innovative artists of the time were mocked and labeled as cultural and political evil and anthropological deviation. To Emil Nolde’s horror (and to his honor) his name was among the “degenerate artists” and some of his works were on display as examples of degenerate art.

Emil Nolde, “Masks”, 1922
Emil Nolde, “Masks”, 1922

The truth of serious art awakening of hateful righteous indignation among conservatives of all stripes

Degenerate Art exhibition
Joseph Goebbels (in the center of the hall) and Adolf Hitler (on the right, encircled by an entourage) visiting exposition of Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst)

Here we see in the same show room as in the previous photo, Nolde’s painting “Masks” – at the upper left corner. We can easily imagine Hitler and Goebbels’ “enlightened opinions” about it, surely, similar with that of the Russian Communist bosses or many today’s American neocons, if both categories of conservatives could be exposed to serious art.

Emil Nolde, “Masks”, 1922
Nolde, “Masks”, 1922


The central semantic motif of the painting is “impersonated” by the mask in profile in the very center – it is the earthly monarchy of the absolute power in both senses – as a human despotism over other humans and as despotism of money over human beings in general (both signified as the might of the golden crown). The face-mask under the crown is charred by the obsession with power, which triggers apocalyptic blast – the face of the monarch is of the same color as the very backdrop of the painting – the color of a burned/scorched world.

But let’s take a look at the symbiotic unity between the (dark) monarchy (human power) and the demonic face/mask that symbolizes superhuman power (on the left of the painting) with a skin like a blue sky darkened, as if, by being locked underground (with the eyes swollen from the burned blood mixed with ashes). The both apocalypse triggering despotic powers – human and superhuman, act together. They share not only beard, but obsession with power and wealth. They are shown as glued to one another – the king’s with a golden crown and the devil’s heads are, as if, two monstrous growths on each other, as if, tumors of one another. They cannot be separated – they are the one piece yearning for domination over life to the point of exterminating it. The burned blind eyes of the golden-crown king look outside – they can see only the world transformed into ashes. The blindness of the monarch is the same as the blindness of the destroyed world. While the king/despot and the devil are both hurt by apocalyptic fires, the golden crown is intact and immortal. It is apocalypse-proven.

The human mask-head turned upside down signifies, it seems, life as a victim of man-made apocalypse. Its hallowed eyes of sadness, mouth of grief and the blue-green patches of makeup confirm that life’s fleshy existence has been killed. Life is a corpse. But it is not burning in spite of the flames behind – it’s a monument created by Nolde’s art of universal memory. By the power of creator the artist saved a dead life from being deformed – erased from the cosmic memory. The moment registered in this painting by Nolde can happen aftermath of nuclear catastrophe, when monarchic and demonic aspects of despotism are at their best on the way to absolute, ultimate domination.

The time depicted by Nolde in this painting of 1922, is his prophetic feeling about the future of humankind. The two corruptors and victimized human and the natural world look at us today from Nolde’s canvass. Could those Nazis looking at this painting on display at the Exhibition of Degenerate Art in Munich have felt in it something like human-made apocalypse? They could be emotionally troubled by Nolde’s work, felt disturbed by the artist’s horrifying truth about their own megalomaniacal arrogance of believing that they are exceptionally, superhumanly worthy in comparison with the rest of the world, believing that “our country” is the best and that in order to prove “our” superiority “we” are optimistically and heroically ready to destroy the world with inferior people, and then they rushed to misnomer Nolde’s paintings as an example of his degeneracy. For people with Nazi psychology wars of domination with its apocalyptic aura are a precondition of their happiness of feeling themselves superhuman.

Let’s look again at the reality according to how Nolde sees it in his “Masks”. The world is a giant field of charred flesh and ashes. The devil’s eyes burned by the nuclear catastrophe. The blood dried on the devil’s face, and the golden crown is the only thing left intact in the world. Gold/money is the ultimate and the only survivor of high-tech war. Human eyes emptied by the blasts and human face emptied by dead suffering.

But why neocon generals and hedge fund managers and Wall Street self-financiers of the 21st century have to worry about destruction of life in the new wars? Are they exceptional or not? They believe that with super-technology and super-soft wares they are. More, may be, they know techno-scientific secret of how to transform/transcend themselves into super-existential condition and then they will become forever invulnerable for noisy, smelly and furious planetary inferiors (even without devil’s help, who anyway, according to “degenerate artist” Nolde’s “appalling” representation, is crippled by nuclear holocaust).