This collage combines fragments of photographs and illustrations within an eerily blank setting. The centre of the work is occupied by a large alien mass, covered with what appears to be thick, dark hair, and topped with a tribal mask. The head and neck of an aged horse stretch from the side of the mass to the left of the picture. This grotesque, threatening figure is contrasted with the upper body of a small child wearing a gas mask, while a maggot-infested piece of fruit in the top-right corner mirrors the Janus–like head of a moustachioed man – resembling Adolf Hitler – directly below it. Masks Survive was created by Roh in Munich, Germany, in 1938 just before the start of the Second World War, and seems to evoke the fears instituted by National Socialism.
Roh was a firm believer in the power of photo-collage, in particular its potential to create fantasy images of a greater potency and complexity than the sum of their ‘real’ parts. As a writer and critic in the 1920s Roh had witnessed the final years of a golden cultural age in Germany during which expressionism was among the dominant artistic movements. Borrowing heavily from tribal artefacts – including and especially African masks – expressionism sought to access ‘primitive’ truths. By 1938, however, the cultural ‘cleansing’ of Germany by the Nazi government was almost complete, with modern movements such as expressionism all but stamped out. By juxtaposing an ancient tribal mask with a modern gas mask, Roh’s collage dwells on the relationship between the survival of culture and the culture of survival considered from the perspective of impending annihilation.
Though subject to a professional ban throughout the period of Nazi rule, Roh remained in Germany during the war and in 1946 accepted a teaching position at Munich University. He came to play a key role in the country’s intellectual rehabilitation after the war, publishing widely on German art until his death in 1965.
Franz Roh, Foto-Auge: 76 Fotos der Zeit / Photo-Eye: 76 Photos of the Period, Tübingen 1929.
Ulrich Bischoff (ed.), Franz Roh: Kritiker, Historiker, Kuenstler, exhibition catalogue, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich 1990.
Virginia Heckert, Franz Roh: Photography and Collage from the 1930s, exhibition catalogue, Ubu Gallery, New York 2006, p.69.