Masks have been a part of cultural celebrations for thousands of years and I have been a lover and collector of cultural masks for a long time. African peoples, Native Americans, the Maori people of New Zealand, and many others created beautiful masks of celebration both to conceal and to reveal parts of themselves. The Venetians are famous for the “Carnival of Venice” where masks were both seductive and somewhat transgressive, a window into the subconscious that is beautiful, fascinating, and mysterious.
During Carnival, the usual laws against covering the face to obscure identity and social and political class were suspended, and people were free to choose their own identity, if only for a day, by disguising their class, social status, and gender. They were free to be whomever they wanted to be, and this transformation during a festival became permission to shed cultural taboos and to live in the joy and pleasure of the moment. This challenge to social order was either allowed or forbidden depending on the religious and political leanings of the time.
Venetian masks were historically made of leather, porcelain or by using the “glass” technique. Now, most masks have an overlay of gesso and gold leaf and painting with the addition of feathers and other objects that leads to varied and gorgeous renderings of the human face and emotions.
The Venetian masks came in distinct styles with different identifying names. I am most drawn to the Colombina and the Volto (Larva) styles that are featured in the photograph. The Colombina is a half mask, covering the wearer’s eyes nose, and upper cheeks, and are often decorated with gold, silver, and feathers. It is a modern version mainly worn by women. The Volto is an iconic but modern version that is often made of porcelain or paper mâché and covers the whole of the face except for the eyes and is secured in the back with a ribbon. It cannot be worn while eating or drinking, but provides for a wide range of emotions and expressions.
One allure of mask wearing is the element of transgressive mystery. Whom is behind this mask and what subconscious desire is the mask wearer expressing? How do I respond and what will the hidden person do next? What secrets do they possess?
The opposite of being masked is to be fully nude, which surprisingly, evokes the same emotions in the observer—which is one reason I love this image. The nude, who covers nothing, evokes mystery. Who is this completely exposed person, what are they saying, what subconscious needs are they acting out? Who are they too think they can ignore society’s rules? The nude, in fact, evokes the same human emotions as the masked and covered human face. Transgressive, beautiful, mysterious, and unknowable all hidden behind a mask and the bare skin of a human body awaiting our own projections onto their surfaces.