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Thursday, October 31, 2013


Most of the most common Venetian masks
copyright, Jim Lane
In Venice, one might think every
day was Halloween.
I usually don't tie my posts to holidays. However, since our trip to Venice last summer, I've been intending to write about the most creative efforts on the part of artists to hide their identities (and that of others). What better time than Halloween? Perhaps in no other place on earth have masks (or masques) become so closely associated with a city's identity. You would think the city invented the mask. That's far from true, of course, but a case might be made for their having invented the masquerade ball. I would even go so far as to say nowhere else on earth are masks so exquisitely beautiful (and expensive). While in Venice I admired many in various shop windows and fully intended to buy one as a most appropriate souvenir. But then, what with everything else there is to see and do in Venice, we simply forgot. I've been kicking myself ever since for my lapse.

Mask of Agamemnon, 1600 BC.
Was it a portrait or a disguise?
The association of masks with Halloween is a relatively recent development. Masks are nearly as old as man, the earliest one dating from around 7,000 BC. It's oval with rounded eyes and a smiling, orange-slice mouth. It likely wouldn't scare anyone but it might get rather tiresome to wear--it's made of stone. Perhaps the most impressive ancient mask is that of Agamemnon (right), which dates from 1600 BC. It's not just somewhat frightening but has the added advantage of being made of solid beaten gold (it too might get a little tiresome to wear). The Greeks made use of masks in their theater productions, often including small, built-in megaphones for voice projection.

Picasso's African masks.
A screaming Munch
Perhaps the most lavish masks today are also not related to Halloween but Carnival--Mardi Gras. They borrow from from Venetian masks but tend to be more ethnically diverse and far more phantasmagorical. And while Venetian masks often tend to be merely half-masks, Carnival masks seldom are. In fact many extend to covering the entire head, not just the face. Indeed, they are often part of an entire body costume. Insofar as art is concerned, when we think of masks, we often conjure up images of those from the continent of Africa. Picasso, for instance, became quite fond of these images, which, for a time, showed up in his paintings, his groundbreaking 1909 les Demoiselles d'Avignon (above, left), instance. Edvard Munch's paintings of The Scream reverses the flow of masks into art as his images serve to inspire masks (above, right). Actually, every continent, virtually every culture, every country on earth has its own brand of masks, Balinese and Japanese masks come to mind.

People pay good money to look this ugly?
And then there's the American version of masks--the Halloween masks. Here's where things get ugly. Beauty, as seen in masks, seems to be mundane. Horror, terror, fright, fear, and nausea have been the rage since I can remember--longer than I like to remember. In more recent years the movies have been a rich source of inspiration for Halloween disguises--Spiderman, Batman and his Nemesis, the Joker, R2D2, and Mickey Mouse. Insofar as Halloween is concerned, dressing in costume came long before the use of masks, as far back as the 16th century in England. In the U.S., Halloween masks evolved from makeup and face paint. They seem to be mostly a 20th century phenomena. Halloween masks today are overwhelmingly frightening, with zombies appearing to be the choice horror at the moment. Still worse along this line, is the frightful images (realistic or caricatured) of politicians--JFK, Nixon, Obama, Bill and Hillary, and Sarah Palin the leading choices (below). Now that is frightening.

Who's the scariest?


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