Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Meaning Behind the Mask in Lorca


Although the mask is a central motif throughout Lorca’s poetry, plays and drawings, its meaning is in no way clear. Why was Lorca so interested in masks? What do masks mean in Lorca’s work? Are they always symbolic? How does the mask relate to what Lorca was trying to do with his art overall?

Lorca, Mask

First, the mask is a key symbol that appears in Lorca’s drawings as an objectie representation of his notion of dual identity, or the mask that stands for one’s “social self” that conceals the “solitude behind” (Oppenheimer 50). For example, Lorca’s drawings often explore the image of the clown wearing a comic mask that falls away to reveal a different underneath. For Lorca, the clown mask was about the comic face that people are forced to wear “to face the world,” with Buster Keaton as the quintessential “tragic clown” (Oppenheimer 50). Lorca’s representations of the mask underscore the influence that the work of surrealist and cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and, of course, Salvador Dalí, had upon his drawings. His masked faces are often cubist in nature, revealing multiple and shifting perspectives, and exhibit his characteristic “involuntary style” that moved away from conventional representation without becoming complete abstraction (Oppenheimer 71).

Lorca, Falling Mask

Lorca, Face with Arrows

Lorca, Portrait of the Poet in New York

One of Lorca’s most famous mask drawings is his Self-Portrait of the poet in New York in which Lorca shows himself as a mask at the center of a New York landscape, surrounded by skyscrapers, strange black animals, and decaying plants. Just like his collection of poetry written during his stay in New York City that he believed should have been titled “New York in the poet,” Lorca is grappling with the issue of self-identity in a modern world, drawing a parallel between his own feelings of being “uprooted” from his homeland and the struggle of the African American community in New York. Whether the mask is a façade determined by the individual or forced upon him by society, Lorca understood the mask primarily as a symbol of a repressed interior identity.

Lorca, Music and Mask

Lorca, Clown Mask

Lorca, Mask with Animal

However, the mask also brings with it a number of other cultural associations that surely Lorca and his readers would have recognized and understood. While the most immediate association with the mask for theatre students is commedia dell’arte, I am going to focus on exploring the mask in regards to Spanish Carnival traditions and the rise of modern portrait painting in the early 20th century.

Carnival Masks

Carnival is a ritual festival that celebrates both the coming and spring and the beginning of Lent, gaining this latter Catholic definition in the 15th century when Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon conquered Spain from the Moors and introduced Christianity. Its festivities traditionally fall on the Tuesday before Lent, but it is also traditionally celebrated in Spain over the preceding weekend beginning on Friday with a traditional processional of floats and masqueraders. While it became a popular form of lowbrow entertainment during the 18th century, today it remains rooted in rural tradition. Since the Golden Age of Spanish literature, carnival has been closely associated with the genres of farce and satire, serving as a ritualized form of social critique and ridicule. Over the centuries Carnival has frequently been banned or regulated by the authorities that feared social unrest fostered by Carnival’s topsy-turvy spirit that challenges those in power. The masks worn during Carnival were considered especially dangerous because of their anonymous quality that allowed for crime, protest, and generally bad behavior. In 1937, Franco placed a ban on masquerade and festivals throughout Spain, demonstrating the political implications of Carnival as a symbol of the power possessed by the people themselves and the spirit of subversion, disorder and defiance embodied by the mask (Regalado).


Morena, or cow, mask for Carnival

Masks and the Modern Portrait

The mask is also a tool of modernist portrait painting that developed during the early 20th century and dominated the European art world of Lorca’s lifetime. In painting, modernist art sought to challenge traditional European representational or “realistic” art by instead expressing an essentially “existentialist vision” of the instability and hyper-fragmentation of the human identity as these artists of the historical avant-garde saw it (Serraller 7). Many of these modernist painters like Pablo Picasso were drawn to “primitive” tribal masks because of the unconventional, non-western facial representations that they offered (Klein 31).

Matisse, Portrait of the Artist's Wife, 1912-13


Picasso, Mask of a Woman, 1908

Lorca, Portrait of Dalí.

Joan Miró, Portrait of Madame K., 1924

Modernist painters seized upon the mask as a “strategy” for mediating between the artist and their subject because of its transformative properties (Klein 27). Rather than using the mask strictly as a means of concealing or revealing an interior individual identity with an exterior social one, modernist portrait artists saw the mask as a tool for performance and used it to seek the liminal space as defined by the cultural anthropologist Victor Turner between two clearly defined states of being where new identities are formed (Klein 28). The portrait’s subject was not simply the face beneath the mask in the painting but the mask-like identity presented by the portrait itself with no suggestion of a different face hidden beneath. The portrait was no longer a static representation of the individual, but a “bricolage” of face with mask as the portrait shifted between the subjectivity of the artist and that of the model to show multiple perspectives, periods of time, or identities (Klein 33). Just as traces of the Surrealist, Cubist and Expressionist art movements can be found throughout Lorca’s work, this same understanding of the relationship between the mask and identity exists in Lorca’s own artwork with his own highly non-representational drawing style. In his self-portrait in New York, for example, are we looking at the poet or his mask, or has he become his mask? While the mask is certainly a symbol of dual identity in Lorca’s work, it also challenges this concept of identity within the context of modernist portrait painting in which the mask creates a new identity that is not necessarily an oppressive social force upon the individual.

Egon Shiele, Self-Portrait, 1912


Kathe Kollwitz, Lament or Self-Portrait, 1938

Dalí, Self-Portrait, 1921-22


Dalí, Cubist Self-Portrait, 1923

Dalí, Self-Portrait, 1941

Frida Khalo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

A portrait of Lorca by Dalí

Works Cited:

Klein, John. “The Mask as Image and Strategy.” The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso. Alarco, Paloma and Malcolm Warner. Yale University Press. 2007. Print.

Oppenheimer, Helen. Lorca: The Drawings and Their Relation to the Poet’s Life and Work. New York, NY: Franklin Watts. 1987. Print.

Regalado, Mariana. “Entroida in Spain.” Carnaval! Ed. Barbara Mauldin. University of Washington Press. 2004. Print.

Serraller, Francisco Calvo. “The Spirit Behind the Mask.” The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso. Alarco, Paloma and Malcolm Warner. Yale University Press. 2007. Print.

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