Mask XIV is a collage created by superimposing a postcard on a black and white photograph. The photograph is a film publicity portrait of an unidentifiable actor taken during the 1940s or 1950s. The postcard is a colour image mounted over the actor’s face. It shows a rocky cavern in which a sandy track curves around a central pillar. On the bottom left the card is captioned ‘Zig zag path, Folkestone’. At this point it covers part of the actor’s signature on his portrait above his right shoulder. Part of his first name – ‘Barry’ – is visible on the print. The postcard photograph appears to have been taken from inside a cave or under a bridge looking out through two openings towards the light. Stezaker has positioned the card on the actor’s face so that the dark silhouette of the rocky openings and the curvature of the cavern line up with the contours of the actor’s face. This placement causes an anthropomorphic reading of the postcard image – the two openings to the light suggest eyes connected by the rocky central column which covers the actor’s face in the position of his nose.
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 (as in Mask XI, 2005, T12345), 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. The image of the zig-zag path relates to the woodland path or holzweg, a path leading – in German folklore such as that published by the Brothers Grimm in the early years of the twentieth century – to possible danger and death. Stezaker became interested in the historical phenomenon of the holzweg through his reading of Landscape and Memory (published New York, 1995) by the British art historian, Simon Schama (born 1945).
The artist’s juxtaposition and careful alignment of the postcard image with the publicity portrait create 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 the Masks the subjects’ eyes are covered; the collage intervention substitutes blankness or holes – dark and empty or leading into other spaces – creating the disturbing sensation of seeing death beneath the features of a living being.
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.