PARIS.- An agent of metamorphosis intended to conceal the face for religious, cosmogonical or dramatic ends in ancient societies, the mask saw a successful resurgence in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, and particularly in France, both in sculpture and in the decorative arts. Whether part of the process of creating a portrait, reducing this to its basic elements, or as a decorative or architectonic element, the mask remains one of the most familiar genres within sculpture, but also one of the least studied in its own right. An integral part of the work of Rodin and Carriès, the mask nonetheless remains an element imbued with a disturbing strangeness, which has echoes in all the visual arts: painting (Ensor, Carrière), graphic arts (Redon), prints (Vallotton) and photography(Steichen). Featuring around one hundred masks, dating from 1860 to 1910, together with paintings and photographs, the exhibition aims to present and analyse the abundant use of a visual grammar which takes the illusionist obsession or Symbolism into the realm of the strange, and sometimes the eccentric, while also taking it towards an ongoing experimentation with the materials used insculpture (glazed stoneware, cast glass, wood, etc).
At the end of the 19th century, the development of the mask, as a genre in its own right, separate from sculpture, as well as a response within portraiture, was tied in with the origin of the technique itself of creating the mask object: a cast from life. Masks, found in every artists studio, were sometimes literally piled up. Moreover, it was during this period that the death mask acquired a definite autonomy through the increasing circulation of copies: Napoleon, Géricault, Beethoven, etc. In addition to this secular, devotional function, masks often served as reliable documents as a basis for a portrait. In a century where portraits were becoming increasingly popular, the suggestive power of the mask, a concise summing up of the individual, fed the imagination of many sculptors, often in a hallucinatory way.
This context went beyond the more popular origins of the mask, particularly those produced for Carnival, even if an artist like Daumier chose it for his political caricatures. The idea of duplicity, the implication in the word Mask since the Renaissance, endured, while changing its meaning slightly,and the eye mask, to give the half mask its proper name, worn since the Renaissance, was never forgotten, particularly in the context of disguise, intrigue, or sexuality (Rops). The mask of classical theatre and its symbolic conventions, the face of the Gorgon/Medusa, continued to inspire artists throughout the 19thcentury. Elsewhere, the word Mask was even used by some authors, such as Rémy de Gourmont in his Book of Masks (1896 1898), a collection of contemporary portraits, and by those art critics wishing to distinguish the face in a sculpture in the round. Since 1886, the mask hashad its own monument in the heart of Paris, in the Luxembourg Gardens: where le Marchand demasques[The Mask Pedlar] by Zacharie Astruc, represents a witty collection of French literary figures. In the 1870s, the passion for Japanism joined these vernacular or historicising sources and led to an interest in collecting Noh theatre masks, either genuine ones or those produced for the West.
The clear connection between the mask, a detached face, and references to John the Baptists severed head is particularly evident in Carriès work. Although he did not invent the genre, from 1888 on, using a radical approach, without separating invention from technique, he was certainly one of the first to base his research around the mask both as a decorative object and as anintegral, architectural element. Bartholomé, Bourdelle, Charpentier, Desbois, Fix Masseau, Ringel dIllzach, Saint Marceaux and others all contributed at various stages to this emancipation of the face, breaking with the traditional half length portrait. Fragmentation was the decisive route to a revival in sculpture. Having been used for a long time as a grotesque mask in architectural decoration, the mask, used as an isolated element by the artist, became, with or without a neck, a favourite form of expression in Symbolism and Art Nouveau, both in the decorative arts and in sculpture while still retaining its secondary role, as in the decorative cascade in Carabins cabinet. At the beginning of the 20th century, under the pretext of radical experiments in sculpture, the fashion for what were then called primitive masks, from Africa or Oceania, took this dialogue between art and the mask along a very different path.
This exhibition brings together for the first time major works by Rodin, Carriès, Böcklin, Klinger, Gauguin and Picasso, along with other less well known artists whose masks prove to be quite surprising, thus presenting a gallery of portraits, both real and imaginary, seductive or sinister, well suited to the serious fantasy in the bold experiments from the late 19th and early 20th century.