The problem with masks is that there are, and have been, so many of them, doing so many things to so many people in so many different ways as to make it difficult analytically to define the boundaries of the object/concept. One is tempted to conclude that, ergo, masks are a cultural universal in space and time. But this is precisely one of the problems.
The authors of Masks cast their net wide and bold. In six concise essays, they discuss a staggering variety of objects of various descriptions worn over the human face. These are then described over a timespan of roughly 40,000 years and a planet-sized geographical spread.
The first chapter deals with masking practices in prehistory. John Nunley assumes that the representations of half-human and half-animal figures in rock paintings are evidence of the early use of masks. This is by no means certain. Several specialists would dispute interpreting rock paintings tout court as representational. Likewise, the (admittedly cautious) espousal of the thesis of the origins of masking as linked to sympathetic magic practices connected to hunting is predicated on ethnographic analogies in need of more specific circumstantial evidence.
The second and third essays, again by Nunley, set masks in the context of rites of passage of a seasonal and a sociological type which occasionally take the form of rites of cosmic renewal, such as Carnival.
Mediating between what Arnold Van Gennep called les passages humaines and les passages cosmiques , masks effect the transformation of youth into adulthood and secure the smooth transition between seasons. Here, as throughout the book, the reader is confronted with an attempt to play down the difference between “us” and “them”, and show that we really do believe in masks as much as “them”. For as admirable and stimulating as this attitude might occasionally be, it nevertheless gets a bit too keen when it is suggested “that plastic surgery might be a modern rite of passage for young women disappointed in the physical outcome of their adolescence”. Further on, plastic surgery is qualified as “a rite” in which “modern medicine is called upon to rectify the failure of nature”. There you are: treat analytical terms and theoretical constructs loosely (“masks”, “rite” and so on) and you end up loosely cannonading friends and foes...
Nunley then moves on to deal with the most vexed question of all. In the chapter “Men as women”, the question is asked: why is it that, although it is almost universally men who are allowed to mask, so many of them mask as women? The answers provided are stimulating and wisely cautious. On the one hand, the issue is very simple. As a masker in the Dolomites told the present reviewer: “Why is it that women cannot wear masks, you ask? Well, suppose they did: who would watch us wearing them?” On the other hand the problem involves far too complex (and as yet poorly theorised and understood) reasons, relating to the construction and perception of gendered selfhoods, for settling in a few pages.
The same problem afflicts the chapter by John Emigh on masks in Asian theatrical practices. Squeezing the staggering variety of performative genres of vastly differing cultural regions such as the Indian subcontinent, the Indonesian archipelago, China and Japan (duly without overlooking Korea — and what about Thailand, Laos and the rest?) into the confines of 20 richly illustrated pages is simply impossible. One can only sympathise with its author and admire his daring.
The sections by Lesley Ferris and Cara McCarty on the deployment of masks in classical, medieval and modern Europe and in contemporary film are perhaps more internally coherent and conclusive. They occasionally reward the reader with interesting details.
With the last chapter, “Offence/defence”, also by Cara McCarty, we are back to the central problem of the book: here “masks” cover anything from Apollo 15 helmets to hunting charms to gas masks to the Muslim veil to medieval field armours to... So what is wrong with hats, caps, (sun)glasses, wigs, make-up, and then hair-cuts and body modification, and then (why not?) clothing? Why should the lot also not be understood as “masks”?
Let’s face it. This book accompanied an exhibition at the Saint Louis Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As an exhibition catalogue obviously aimed at a very wide public, it suffers from simplifications and short-cuts. These were most probably partly offset by the magnificence of the material exhibited. As a stand-alone book, in spite of the lavish illustrations and the intelligent editorial decision to show as many masks in action as possible, the book remains rather weak. There is, of course, nothing wrong with publishing for the general public, but masks hide much more than they have let slip here.
Cesare Poppi is deputy director of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia.
Masks: Faces of Culture
Author - John W. Nunley and Cara McCarty, in association with the Saint Louis Art Museum
ISBN - 0 8109 4379 4
Publisher - Saint Louis Art Museum
Price - £38.00
Pages - 344