Spirit faces: beyond the mask

The development of modern art owes much to the ‘discovery’ of tribal art by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in the early twentieth century, writes the Museum’s Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman.

Paris, 1906, and artist Henri Matisse is walking down the Rue de Rennes. He pauses in front of a display of so-called primitive artefacts in a curio shop. Mesmerised, he can only marvel at the facial expressions and striking forms of the masks and sculptures from Africa and Oceania as they resonate with images of ancient Egypt and other stylised artforms in his artist’s mind.  

Matisse was the first modern Western artist to fall under the spell of tribal African art and was soon joined by his colleagues Pablo Picasso and André Derain in exploring what became known as Primitive art – a seminal movement in the history and development of twentieth-century Western art.

Primitivism or art?

The term ‘primitivism’ was first used in France in the late nineteenth century to describe a series of non-Western arts, and was formally defined as an art-historical term in the encyclopaedic Nouveau Larousse Illustré, published in Paris between 1897 and 1904. Ethnographic museums in the later nineteenth century collected and preserved all manner of curios, masks, figures and other indigenous material but made no distinction between art and artefact. They categorised as ‘primitive’ any indigenous cultures and art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas outside the parameters of the Beaux-Arts (the ‘beautiful arts’, meaning European classic art).

Primitivism also mirrored the prevailing Social Darwinian theories that placed non-Westerners at the base of the cultural evolutionary tree. By contrast, modern European artists of the early twentieth century responded to primitive art primarily as an expression of imagination and invention. Matisse, Picasso and Derain admired the abstract qualities found in indigenous artefacts and formed a deep fascination, and respect, for non-Western artistic pictorial forms that would influence their own artworks.

Picasso’s first encounter with an ethnographic display of African and Oceanic artefacts, at the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero in Paris in 1907 deeply impressed him. He later wrote: ‘If we give form to the spirits, we become independent of them. The spirit, the unconscious, emotion – it’s the same thing. I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, the masks, the Red Indian dolls … Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907] must have come to me that day, but not at all because of the forms [but] because it was my first canvas of exorcism …’.

Picasso was moved by the abstract expressive representations of the artefacts in that collection and the ritualistic possibilities of their use, rather than as mere objects to be looked at or even admired. He recognised in those masks a sense of psychological ‘otherness’ and a symbolic connection to a larger view of humanity. Picasso and other early modern artists through their responses helped encourage a broader appreciation of the rich variety of humanity and culture outside the art circles of the West. But it was not until the 1920s that these non-Western styles ceased to be ‘primitive’ and became known as ‘tribal art’.

Behind the masks

Masks possess a rich symbolism and psychology that resonates throughout history and cultures, with their near-universal links to identity, the subconscious and the supernatural. On one level, masks symbolise our ability to change or transform, to go to other worlds or communicate with and appease the supernatural. In many cultures, masks act to fulfil the desires and challenges to which societies must respond in order to prosper, to maintain balance or strengthen identity.

Across Melanesia, in Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, masks are instruments of revelation, used in celebrating important periods of the ceremonial life cycle. They promote the community’s prosperity and fertility, with the masked figure often a key participant in these rituals. For example, the huge Mandaska masks of the Uramot Baining people of New Britain represent the spirits of particular leaves and trees. The masks are traditionally used in celebrations held for the newborn and initiated, and for more contemporary events such as the openings of schools and churches.

Other forms of masks are found in complex and elaborate funerary rituals, such as those in Southern Malakula, Vanuatu. Masks such as the large overmodelled headdresses found here represent the spiritual aspects of a particular nalawan (sacred knowledge society). During funerary rituals, the mask becomes the abode of the portrayed spirit and becomes one with the wearer.

Spirit masks are also found in the northern central area of La Grande Terre in New Caledonia. Certain types of Kanak masks represent a series of spirits linked with chiefly lineages, while others are associated with creation or the underwater world of the dead, the latter decorated with masses of coiled human hair worn on top of the mask.
Whatever the origin of their identity, or the myths, shapes and materials used in their making, masks have come to be associated with the supernatural. In some Melanesian cultures, the mask holder is believed to be the conduit of life into the object.

We in the West may consider such masks to be tribal art, and a masked figure as a person disguised, but in most Melanesian societies such masked figures become the spirits – the wearer of a mask becomes whatever his disguise represents, and their movements during performances emulate the characteristics of the associated spirit form. Add to this the theatricality of many rituals and you can perhaps begin to appreciate the powerful illusions created for the mesmerised Melanesian audiences gathered for ceremonies and rituals. Such effects are at the core of the mystification behind masks.

Secrecy and mystery

In some Melanesian societies, masks retain their power in part because of the heavy veil of secrecy and mystery surrounding their nature and use. The materials used – shells, feathers, wood, barkcloth, seeds, human hair and animal teeth – help to hide the transformation of the initiated man into a masked figure whose identity remains hidden from the public.

These views are worth reflecting upon. It is perhaps our unqualified Western sense of realism and logical thinking that prevents us from adequately responding to the deep significance of some Melanesian masks. In attempting to understand them, we may first need to develop the attitudes of Picasso and other European artists and share in the sense of mystery, respect and admiration that gives these masks such extraordinary appeal.

Yvonne Carrillo-Huffman, Collections Officer, Pacific, Cultural Collections and Community Engagement

First published in Explore 33(4) pp 8-11

Further reading

JD Flam & M Deutch (eds), 2003. Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History. University of California Press, USA.
J Guiart, 1987. Mythologie du masque en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Publications de la Société des Océanistes. Paris, France.
K Huffman, 2001. Nalawane Kamen Senawah Wutmes: Our traditions – Nalawan rituals – refused to die. Muse, Spring edition, pp 6–7.
JW Nunley & C McCarty, 1999. Masks: Faces of Culture. Harry N Abrams, NY, USA.

Brendan Atkins , Publications Coordinator
Last Updated: