Image of Mask
Image of Mask

The painted mask

Many materials are used in making masks: wood, metal, plastic, rubber, papier maché, fibers and textiles, feathers and animal hide. Painted masks can also transform the wearer as effectively as a layer of wood or fiber.

The clown is a favorite (or feared) masked character from many childhoods. This painted face embodies much of the human condition, distilled to its essence of comedy and pathos.

Performances in societies around the world are personified in characters with painted faces. Indeed, face painting could be the subject of an exhibit in its own right. Here we can recognize this offshoot of the mask, and see how the impact of transformation and illusion can be conveyed by the shallowest of layers.

One of the most vivid examples is Chinese Opera, where characters are defined by faces that are so strongly layered with rich face paint as to look like wooden or lacquered masks. The colors and designs have many symbolic meanings, that can reflect the nature of the character such as courage, nobility, honesty, brutality or deception.

Image of Mask
     Kiss in concert in Boston, 2004;
     photograph from Wikimedia Commons

This tradition has continued to modern stage acts, including a number of popular bands. The rock group Kiss adopted face paint as their motif; David Bowie and Alice Cooper performed as stage characters with heavy makeup. A painted mask can have another advantage – it can allow some degree of anonymity for the performer in public.

In many societies, face painting has been a part of religious ceremonies, often to the same effect as true masks. Face paint can be camouflage during hunting or warfare, and may combine an intention to terrify an enemy. We see extraordinary richness in face painting traditions in Native American cultures. The facial tattoos of Polynesian peoples such as Hawaiians and New Zealand Maori had ceremonial and aesthetic significance.

It has been said that “the smallest mask in the world is the clown’s red nose” (attributed to the French teacher of theater and mime, Jacques Lecoq, 1921-1999). The clown has evolved from the much older notion of the fool or jester, a figure that extends well into pre-Christian times. There is comedy in the clown’s silly antics, yet also a poignancy and a revelation about life’s condition. The clown is depicted less by large shoes or baggy clothes than by the painted face, typically exaggerating the facial expressions of joy or sorrow. The layer of greasepaint is as effective as a carved wooden mask in transforming the individual into a metaphor – this is the side of us all that we find amusing in others but embarrassing in ourselves. The timelessness of the clown is demonstrated in its continuing popularity. The Canadian - international circus, Cirque de Soleil, relies heavily on clowns (and facial makeup and masks) for its dramatic and comedic impact.

Image of Mask
     “Dooley” the clown at the Marion Ohio Popcorn Parade,
     2010; photograph courtesy of Dewey Kugler

The silent movie star Charlie Chaplin developed a loveable character in The Tramp, who was clown-like in many ways. His pale facial makeup and small, square moustache became the equivalent of a clown’s red nose. Like the generic clown, he was prone to mistakes and slapstick humor, yet could always rebound, and was ultimately sincere and committed to good.

While the clown is traditionally perceived as a comical, harmless and ultimately noble character, with many simple and childlike overtones, there can be a dark side. Many people, especially children, find ‘the clown’ to be an unsettling figure, somewhat sinister and creepy. For some, the fear is more intense. Coulrophobia is the phobia of clowns and can include a manic fear of covering up one's own face with paint.

It is inevitable then that authors and film makers have adopted the clown for the ultimate irony – to be a symbol of evil. We see this in such horrific creations as Stephen King’s It (Signi, 1986) where a shape-shifting, child-eating monster assumes the features of a loveable clown. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a 1988 film (Chiodo Brothers, TransWorld) that bridges comedy, horror and science fiction through a band of horrible extraterrestrial clowns. The Joker, Batman’s (Detective Comics) most diabolical and sociopathic enemy, is depicted with a grotesque facial resemblance to a clown. It is a small step to distort the painted mask of the clown into the personality of the villain. Childhood associations of laughter become jarringly replaced by images of violence and death. This is truly the stuff of (masked) nightmares.


Can you think of other instances where a thin disguise can transform a person?

How do you feel about clowns?

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