Introduction and Background
Although having its origins prior to The Great War what is today known as Art Deco has come to symbolize an era of glamour epitomized by The Roaring Twenties and 1930s Hollywood. Partly an antidote to the war and a reaction to all that led up to it as well as to the era of economic slumps, depression, social strife and political unrest which followed, Art Deco remains one of the most easily recognized styles of Modernism. Truly international and highly eclectic in its influences Art Deco belongs to a world of luxury and decadence which conjures up a multitude of romantic images which belong to the period F. Scott Fitzgerald termed The Jazz Age. Thus most people will instantly think of skyscrapers, ocean liners, cocktails, flappers, and if not The Great Gatsby then perhaps Poirot. One of the slightly more peculiar offshoots of the new stylistic innovations that announced themselves during this time was a vogue for what are generally known as wall or face masks.
In the immediate aftermath to WWII however, many considered face masks to be at best little more than kitsch. In fact, it does seem strange that these masks were a popular way of ornamenting the wall during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Nevertheless, this was a trend (along with flying ducks) that was to be successfully revived in the 1950s and ‘60s and is a highly popular collecting area today with the prices of the most sought after masks steadily - sometimes dramatically - rising. Initially however, most of the masks produced during the 1930s were cheaply priced, for instance the masks manufactured by Beswick started at between two and three British Shillings each and therefore were in the reach of lower middle-class pockets. Today, and somewhat like the slogan for Marmite (you either love it or hate it) Deco masks, like the lady to the left, often raise a smile. A factor that I think should remind us that Art Deco throughout its initial heyday was also about fun. Furthermore, while it was and remained highly popular, it never was concerned solely with high art and deep pockets. During the course of this two part article, I want to provide a brief introduction to some of the major producers and types/styles of mask, with an indication of what the newcomer to collecting should look out for and certain areas that should perhaps - if only for the time being - be avoided. I also want to present a bit of background and a broader understanding of why and where Art Deco masks might fit into the broader picture and related areas of collecting.
Perhaps one of the first things to note, as indeed many commentators do, is the sudden re-discovery of the aesthetics of so-called tribal or primative art that gathered pace from 1906. This was especially the case with both African and Polynesian tribal sculpture and with African tribal masks. It is also clear that many artists prior to WWI began to develop a new consciousness of tribal art and it played a major part in the development of such movements as Cubism and the works of Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Cassandre and Constantin Brancusi among others. However, while such influence clearly manifests itself in the 1930s masks manufactured by Goldscheider, it is almost totally absent with regard to most other producers of Art Deco face masks. Nevertheless, this influence does filter through during the 1920s, a time of great cultural shift that was intrinsically linked with the emergence of a commodity culture. Certainly, a fascination with masks goes back to at least the drama of the Ancient Greeks and appears in most cultures, for instance Japanese Noh theatre and the Italian Commedia dell'Arte, the latter of which gave us the enduring characters of Harlequin and Punchinello etc. It is also clear that the Commedia became highly in fashion during the ‘20s as evidenced in works by Picasso, the Ballet Russe, and the vogue for fancy dress or masquerade balls. Below are just two of many examples that draw upon masquerade. The first, an illustration by Maurice Milliere from the popular 1920s publication Fantasio, and a second a ceramic figure from an unknown continental manufacturer of the late twenties early thirties.
What I think is interesting here is the merging of cultures and especially of a convergence between what have traditionally been considered as “high-brow” and “low-brow” (aka “popular culture”). While such factors alone do not account for the sudden vogue of adorning one's walls with masks they do constitute a complex of influences that filter through into the general consciousness often via the convergence between Art and advertising. Below I have chosen several pictures to illustrate this:
This first picture is a photographic work of art by the Dada artist Man Ray. Produced in 1926 it is appropriately entitled Noire et Blanche or Black and White. Appropriately entitled not just because it's a black and white photograph but because a Caucasian female is holding and is juxtaposed with an African tribal mask. Also perhaps a reminder that the earlier aficionados of Tribal art termed it Arte Negre rather than simply “primitive” or “tribal.” The emphasis throughout is therefore on the aesthetic - style and beauty - rather than any falsely negative notion of primative. So, do we have here juxtaposition between modern sophistication and African primitivism, or is Man Ray making a comment on style in what is simultaneously a highly stylized and sophisticated arrangement?
This second image shows art reaching into advertising. A full page ad taken from the French periodical L'Illustration of July 1931 advertising Innoxa Beauty Cream. However, the figure in the background is a painting/drawing of a highly stylized woman that again draws inspiration from a tribal mask or statue. It is also an image that with its stylized elongated form brings to mind portraits by Modigliani or sculptures by Brancussi. The photograph for the ad arranged and shot by renowned Paris photographer Regis Le Brun.
This third image taken from the same periodical but from June 1937 takes a slightly different approach but is once again for a variety of beauty products. This time the woman's face itself forms a mask. If you click on the picture and enlarge you can see that the fan she is holding lists the products. Interestingly during the 1920s and ‘30s advertising fans were often given away in shops and boutiques, and constitute a separate area of collecting. Also note the play on words, for while every modern woman obviously needs a beauty mask she can choose from Le Creme Masque de Caron and significantly Le Masque Porcelaine de Caron. So, perhaps once you’ve acquired a porcelain complexion you may turn to think of a porcelain wall mask? Or, at least buy your cosmetics from Caron rather than Chanel.
This advertisement for beauty products from 1930 is by the artist and renowned graphic designer A. M. Cassandre (think of the famous poster of the ocean liner Normandie) takes a much more abstract approach to the woman's face. I ask you to note the exaggerated eyebrows, eyes, and lips in particular. The face here reminds me as much of the robot Maria from Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis as it does of any real woman. I would suggest that the allusion to Metropolis, juxtaposing the laboratory where the robot was created and Des Laboratoires du Dr. Charpy cosmetics and beauty experts, is intentional. Maria (both as real woman and as robot) was of course portrayed in the movie by Brigitte Helm one of the leading stars and film beauties of the day.
How then do I relate these different styles and approaches to wall masks? First, I would suggest that traditional ideas of realism aren't the issue. Secondly, it is clear that the majority of masks produced and which are most collected today are of young, fashionable, stylized and stylish women. Thirdly, there was a trend for masks that were supposedly modelled on film starlets. Masks made by various manufacturers included resemblances of Dorothy Lamour, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and especially Marlene Dietrich. There were masks modelled on male stars such as Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire but these are the exception rather than the rule. Now I said supposedly modelled on for a reason. If we look back at the smiling lady mask, which is the first picture in this article, she's supposed to resemble Rita Hayworth. As with the Marlene you have to use your imagination a bit, but then if you ever visit Madame Tussaud's you also have to use your imagination and sometimes more than a bit.
During the second part of this article, I will look at look at a number of the major manufacturers (Cope & Co, Beswick, Goebels, Royal Dux, Goldscheider, et al.) providing further photographs of examples from my own collection and stock. In doing so I hope to show what are some key characteristics to look out for, how to distinguish between the various manufacturers, and some warnings about modern reproductions and outright copies. I will also provide some advice about starting and building a collection, displaying and caring for masks, and which masks to look out for if you are on a restricted budget and which generally sell for hundreds of Pounds Sterling/Dollars. Who knows what you might chance across as some of these items still adorn dusty old walls in 1930s houses and have been known to appear in junk shops and house clearance sales?
If this article has stimulated any interest and/or furthered an existing passion, or you would simply like to know more about these, call back next week; same time, same channel.