Mask XI is a collage created by superimposing a postcard on a black and white photograph. The photograph is a film publicity portrait of an unidentifiable male actor taken during the 1940s or 1950s. The postcard was produced by Colorama in the 1980s. It is a colour print of a stream trickling and cascading over rocks down through a narrow chasm half hidden by the delicate tracery of deciduous trees in leaf. The card covers the actor’s entire face, substituting a long rocky crevice, streams of falling water and small pools for his features. The water falls in a zig-zag from upper right to lower left, terminating in a pool where overhanging rocks cast a shadow on the water. This dark shadow, falling at the approximate level of the actor’s mouth, evokes a toothless maw. Higher up, the patterning of light and shade in the rocky cleft suggests a form into which an eye may be read. This elongated and deformed face evoked by symbolic features recalls the faces inspired by African masks created by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), such as the sculpture Woman, 1948 (Sammlung Ludwig, Basel). For Stezaker, the postcard image represents the source of the stream as depicted in a painting by Gustave Courbet (1819-77) entitled The Source, 1968 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Painted two years after his famous erotic painting of woman’s truncated abdomen and spread legs entitled The Origin of the World, 1966 (also Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and four years after The Source of the Loue, 1964 (National Gallery of Art, Washingon), The Source shows a naked woman sitting on a rock playing with water as it falls from a dark space into a pool. Temporally and thematically related, Courbet’s paintings conflate the image of the river source with the vagina. In Stezaker’s collage the rocky gash and hole – around which the lines on rocks evoke puckered skin – resonate with the vision of genital openings into a female body.
Initiated around 1980, the series of Mask collages developed from the Film Still collages, such as The Trial, The Oath and Insert (1978-9, T12341-3). The Masks all follow a similar and deceptively simple format: a film publicity portrait of a star whose face is covered by a postcard – ostensibly a mask – which opens a window into another space, paradoxically suggesting a view behind the mask constituted by the actor’s face. Initially the postcards were images of bridges and caves which in some instances united two or more protagonists. Over the years Stezaker has extended his range of imagery to include tunnels, caverns, rock formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, railway tracks, historic ruins and monuments (as in Mask XIII, 2006, T12346), woodland clearings and paths, as well as streams, waterfalls, lakes and the sea. Stezaker began collecting film stills in 1973 but was not able to afford photographic portraits of film stars until the early 1980s when their price dropped. The first portraits the artist used were damaged or of forgotten film actors, unnamed and anonymous. He has commented:
The Masks were inspired by reading Elias Canetti’s essay on masks and unmasking in his wonderful book Crowds and Power which inspired so much of my work at this time ... I was also teaching a course on Bataille and the origins of art which focused on the mask as the origin and point of convergence of all the arts. Canetti’s idea of the mask as a covering of absence and, in its fixity, as a revelation of death, alongside my discovery of Blanchot’s Space of Literature, was an important turning point in my thinking and in my approach to my work. I usually think of the key dates being 1979 and 1980 as marking a yielding to pure image-fascination and as a release from any function societal or transgressive in the work. The Masks were a response in practice to the Canetti/Blanchot idea of the ‘death’s space’ of the image and consolidated the sense of pure fascination and the desire for ‘exile from life in the world of images’, an ideal I saw in the practice of Joseph Cornell.
(Letter to the author, 26 October 2007.)
Stezaker shares with Joseph Cornell (1903-72) the Surrealist technique of apparently irrational juxtaposition and the evocation of nostalgia through his focus on outdated imagery, collected and pondered over many years. While Stezaker’s use of film stills and publicity portraits of the 1940s and 1950s stems from his boyhood experience of encountering these images on the outside of cinemas advertising films from which he was excluded because of his youth (letter to the author, 26 October 2007), his choice of postcards tends towards the Romantic tradition of nature and the sublime. His juxtaposition and careful alignment of the postcard image with the publicity portrait creates an effect related to the concept of the uncanny as described by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in his 1925 essay, ‘The Uncanny’. Freud analysed the feeling of the uncanny aroused most forcefully by the fantastic stories of the Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), in particular his tale The Sandman (first published in Nachtstücke, 1817). He relates the sense of horror experienced by the protagonist Nathaniel not only to the mechanical doll Olympia, who appears real, but more significantly to a fear of losing ones eyes which he connects to the Oedipal castration complex. In Mask XI, the protagonist has lost his eyes to a vagina – he has been castrated in the Freudian sense as well as being feminised. Stezaker has said: ‘The ‘found’ image ... has a power that overwhelms you. I’m looking for the sublime, in many ways. And I think that the uncanny is a miniature version of that ... In a way, what I want to do with a viewer is put them in that same dazzled state that I first encountered the image in.’ (Quoted in Bracewell, p.89.)
John Stezaker: Marriage, exhibition catalogue, The Approach W1, London 2008.
Mark Coetzee, John Stezaker: Rubell Family Collection, exhibition catalogue, Rubell Family Collection, Miami 2007, pp.17-19 and 57-75.
Michael Bracewell, ‘Demand the Impossible’, Frieze, issue 89, March 2005, pp.89-93 and front cover.