Emil Nolde’s “Maskenstilleben” (1911) – Three Archetypal Motifs Of Entertainment, Its Consumer And Its Creator Settled In And Filled With A Melting Cheerful Blue As A Wasteful Air of Vanity

The Artificial Skies of Mass-cultural Entertainment


Nolde’s “Maskenstillleben 1911” is not his creative (festive) reaction on the reality of human life, but rather his skeptical reaction on artificial cheer into which mass culture of contemporary society has transformed human life – on a permanent pseudo-festivity, which people gluttonously consume. When people’s desire to celebrate life is transformed into somebody else’s business and becomes economy: systemic production of excitement and amusement, the previous participants of the (pre-modern) carnival found themselves as chronic consumers of entertainment. They lose their interest in being part of life and the feeling of unity between life’s serious and carnivalesque sides. Their identification with the new, corrupted (tickling their pockets) forms of festivity has become voracious, flattened (liberated not only from its existential context, but from the very meaning of human relations) and “instrumental”. People lose the sense of “seriousness” of playfulness. Truth and imagination lose their common melody. The festive ritual becomes boring, and people need more and more exaggerated stimulation of joy, which is the destiny of any type of consumerism. This “non-seriousness” of carnivalesque joyfulness is reflected by the background of Nolde’s painting – its melting light-blueness, as if, filling the masks’ eyes and mouths. Joke-ness of instrumental entertainment becomes superficial and inept.

Among five masks – the fundamental one – in the low left corner of the painting, represents the face of cheerful dough, with a smile without smiling, with the joy which is generic and abstract. It is, it seems, impersonation of the very consumer of entertainment. His or her face expresses a kind of absent-minded happiness, and the eyes are transparently empty.

The three masks – above the 1st one – represent generalized content of entertainment as mass-cultural structure.

The mask of the cat with gluttonous cheeks and severe expression is, at the same time, joyful and joke-full (it softens and normalizes the immanent predatoriness of life).

Next, to the right from the cat – is a horror mask. It expresses horror with intentional exaggeration (as if, the intention here is to make people get used to horror in order to be able to live with it as a normal part of human environment). According to this approach, horror has to be taken easily and become a “humorous” feature of life.

Farther to the right is gender-ambiguous mask/face (in today’s pop-semiotics – with LGBT connotation) – it is a mask of streamlined pop-star, with eyes which exist for whatever purpose except seeing, and where mouth too is to be looked at (it is not for talking, kissing or eating).

Finally, at the right margin of the painting, behind the other masks we see a blurry mask of… the creator of mass-cultural festivity. It is a magician/inventor of mass entertainment, the ingenious craftsman who has made his product a forever fixed background of today’s life. Its optimistic blue (the backdrop of Nolde’s painting) fills the eyes and mouths of all the masks and overwhelms souls of the inhabitants of post-democracy. The very mask-face of the creator of today’s tireless gala-entertainment is completely made from the excess of this soft paste-blue.

Four masks positioned by Nolde above the main one (the smiling dough) represent three ideas of mass-cultural entertainment plus the ironic tribute to the very creators of it. A severe cat, as if, storing food in its cheeks, personifies our fears kept under control. The next mask symbolizes hyperbolic representation of horror as entertainment. Then we see the universalized, all-embracing as glove for all sizes, glamor of the super-stars. And the final mask refers to the very craft and the craftsmen of high-tech entertainment as a science and a global production machine.

In a briefest way – each of the five masks represents – the first: consumer of entertainment, the next three – archetypes of entertaining appeal and, finally, personification of the creators of entertainment.