The mask, the masklike, and the faceless in modern European art

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Ellen C. Oppler


Fine Arts

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


It is clear to any viewer that twentieth-century art encompasses a range and variety of styles unprecedented in art history. The question or problem undertaken in this dissertation is whether there might be a common denominator uniting--philosophically, and to some extent, visually--diverse twentieth-century styles and movements.

Preliminary research indicated that one of the motifs that has recurred repeatedly in modern art is the mask. Far from being the simple, superficial object that it would seem, the mask in modern art has assumed countless forms and carries connotations derived from many traditions, including Greek theater masks, the Commedia dell'Arte, carnival masks, Oriental theater masks, and especially non-Western--that is, African, Oceanic, and native American--masks. The mask's antiquity and universality testifies to an inherent or psychological basis for the artist's and the observer's interest in it. The face is, very naturally, the single most fascinating visual "object" for human beings. It follows that a face cover would acquire similar fascination by association. Further, the idea of an "additional face," the relationship between the mask and the face, and the matter of layers and concealment, suggest parallel philosophical concepts--notably, the problem of appearance and reality. The potential of the mask as a formal and expressive device multiplies accordingly.

The initial approach was necessarily a compilation of empirical data, examples of mask imagery in the work of twentieth-century painters and sculptors. The problem became one of limiting and selecting from an abundance of such images; therefore, this compilation is by no means comprehensive. Parallel phenomena in other arts--drama, literature, and even music--are noted. The image falls into two very fundamental categories, the mask per se and the masklike, reflected in the division of the dissertation into two parts. The masklike includes other forms of synthesis. One of these forms, the faceless, appears to have contributed to the evolution of non-objective art. It also had its own sources, uses, and meanings.

Because the focus of this study is on the evolution of the twentieth-century mask, the period covered is that from about 1900 to 1945. The epilogue summarizes some of the more recent developments, for the interest in the mask is ongoing and not likely to wane. There is no question that the mask in twentieth-century art is a particularly significant image for many styles and movements.


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