Masks: from gold to paper

Made from the most diverse materials, the mask bears the two opposing faces of the precious object and of the disposable one, symbolically represented by gold and paper.

Luisa Canovi

The object called a mask belongs to every culture in the world. It has been part of the history of mankind from the primitive tribal rituals to the most modern representations and shows. It can also be considered a fake face worn for religious, magical, fun, social, theatrical reasons.

The etymology of the word mask comes from the Medieval Latin term “masca” which originally meant “larva”. Subsequently, it also took on the meaning of ghost, witch, of being disguised in order to scare children. The larva, or the inhabitant of humid, dark, underground places is the specter of a dead person that can come back to earth with sometimes evil and sometimes benevolent purposes.

IN SACRED AND PROFANE REPRESENTATIONS in which larvae return among the living, it is the living being with a mask (the larva-masca) on his/her face who personifies these underground forces. The most famous feast is the Carnival in which different characters – from Mr. Punch, veritable ghost wearing a large, white costume, to Harlequin (Hell Queen) – arrive to revolutionize daily life and to upset the order of things. The mask on the face prevents its wearer from being recognized; so, wearing a mask allows one to do what normally cannot be done. Hence, thanks to the mask, role reversals take place: the poor man (even if just for one day) takes the place of the rich man and eats all he can; the man becomes a woman, the youngster becomes an old man… This “becoming someone else” discharges tensions, entertains. Then, once the mask is removed, everything returns to normal. In this sense, the mask belongs to sacred times, to the time in which an extraordinary event takes place, in any case a time that has a well-defined and limited beginning and an end.

A LONG TIME BEFORE THE CARNIVAL RITUALS, THE MASK ALREADY HAD WELL DEFINED AND CONSECRATED ROLES: for example, that of maintaining the appearance of the deceased, often a king or a nobleman, through a sort of three-dimensional portrait made in contact with the face of the deceased himself. This technique precedes by centuries that of the actual mould. The most famous example is the mask of Agamemnon, dating back to the XVI century BC. Made in a thin lamina of gold, as all funeral masks, it does not want to disguise the face, but rather fix the resemblance forever, and only a precious material such as gold can preserve its memory in time.


With wood, seashells, rope, straw, leaves and an infinite number of other simple elements, tribal societies the world over make the masks used for their magical rituals. They represent the spirits of good and evil, animals to be hunted, ancestors to be revered, forces of nature to be invoked. They are worn by the tribal chief who, thanks to shamanist practices, actually becomes the being represented. Or they are used by the members of the tribal community to sanction passages in their social status.

Initiations, wedding rituals, appointments of power are underscored by the presence of symbolic masks. It is believed that in these masks, even in moments of inactivity, reside the spirits of the beings represented, and often the materials used have a symbolic valence connected to their meaning. For example, using wolf’s fur for the mask of the wolf enhances its strength and even if the mask is not worn, its strength remains intact.

BUT THE MASK DOES NOT ALWAYS ASSUME A PERPETUAL SACRED SIGNIFICANCE. Often, it is created and used for a certain function that makes sense at the time in which it is used, and then remains a simple object. In classical Greek times, a period that saw art, philosophy, literature and the theatre at its best, the mask carried a cultural and social importance. Comedies and tragedies taking place in the open air necessitated “codified” faces that could be well seen and recognized even from afar. Made with linen cloths, wood, cork, locks of hair and few other materials, the Greek masks all possessed the common characteristic of having a large open mouth that amplified the voice and the gaze was fixed, forward-looking, with enormous eyes. Somatic traits were emphasized to portray important mythical figures (heroes, kings, divinities), social conditions and jobs (wealthy people, servants, prophets), gender and age (a young damsel, a man in the vigor of his youth, an old man near death). Differently from the tribal representations in which there is total identification with the mask worn, in the theater there is the temporary pretence of what is represented. The actor pretends for a limited time to be another person, but everyone knows this, and the Greek mask therefore remains a mere object of scenery and decoration without any magical or symbolic implication at all.

IN THE THEATER IN GENERAL, THE MASK TAKES ON THE MEANING OF REPRESENTATION also when it turns from a codified and rigid form into a freer and more flexible form. This is true for example in Venetian comedies, where the face is hidden in a simple manner by a refined mask made in satin or velvet that highlights the eyes and the shape of the face. In this case, the mask represents lovers’ play, identity switches, the revolutionizing of roles. And often, it does not even hide the entire face, which renders it all the more mysterious. Total disguise in order to completely hide the wearer is, instead, the purpose of the hooded masks, all alike, sewed using poorer fabrics such as cotton or raw wool, and used during the ceremonies of the Holy Week or in religious processions or still today during funerals. In this case, it is necessary to keep the identity of the participants anonymous. More complex and codified are the masks sculptured in wood and then completed in leather, appropriately softened and nailed onto the wood to give the desired form. With this technique, realistic and even grotesque faces are created, with extremely refined details in the mouth, shaped in a frown, aquiline noses, wrinkles, cheekbones, eyebrows. They are the masks of the commedia dell’arte but also of other theatrical genres, different, more modern and closer to our days.

A MORE ECONOMICAL SYSTEM FOR WHAT CONCERNS THE MATERIALS AND MAYBE SIMPLER IN TECHNIQUE IS THAT OF MAKING MASKS USING PAPIER-MÂCHÉ. A face is created using clay and then, with chalk, a mould is made (the mould can also be made directly on the face of the actor who will be wearing the mask). Inside the mould, strips of paper are glued using flour paste; also gauze strips are used to give the mask more elasticity. Once the mould is finished and dried, the papier-mâché mask is removed and ready for the finishing touches: color, holes for the eyes, addition of added elements. This technique of the chalk mould, just like that of the wooden model, allows the creation of multiples of the same mask, even though, in reality, every finished mask will constitute a unique creation.

IN THE EAST, PARTICULARLY IN JAPAN, PAPIER-MÂCHÉ is used for theatrical masks or for masks used in play by children. Besides strips of paper, sometimes also macerated paper mixed with corn starch glue is used. This type of papier-mâché is smoother and more malleable and, once dry, almost resembles porcelain. In more recent years, masks are made with the origami technique, using a sole sheet of paper, without cutting or glue, just by folding the sheet in special fashion. Actually, these masks are not wearable, and their beauty and technical complexity makes them more of a paper sculpture. Another non-wearable work of art is the Chinese mask, cut out from black pieces of paper similar to the silhouettes of the theater of shadows, or the large masks of monsters and dragons made of colored and engraved paper, inspired by popular traditions.

FROM THE ART OF PAPER FOLDING AND CUTTING COME THE MASKS MADE USING THE KIRIGAMI TECHNIQUE AND ALSO THE POP-UP MASKS, where these magically appear by opening the pages of a book. A surprise effect that flattens again when the book is closed. Other paper masks similar to veritable sculptures are made by assembling together cut out silhouettes and placing them one on top of the other to form bas-reliefs that have surprising three-dimensional effects of depth.

AND MASKS HAVE ALSO HAD THE ROLE OF INSPIRERS AND HAVE BEEN AN OBJECT OF CULT FOR ARTISTS, PAINTERS AND SCULPTORS, from Pietro Longhi to Renè Magritte, from Aubrey Beardsley to Pablo Picasso. But we are, of course, talking about the arts of painting and sculpture. One artist that has chosen the concept of mask for his very personal artistic research is Saul Steinberg. With simple paper bags similar to those used to wrap bread, he has made masks that have strong ironical expressions. He has placed these masks on the faces of people wearing common clothes, photographed in common environments, carrying out common activities. The result is something very uncommon, due to the “absence” of the face, replaced by large paper bags, made significant through simple and expert marks for the eyes, nose and mouth. •

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