Fat Tuesday marks the height of the Mardi Gras festivities and is celebrated—at least in New Orleans—with parades, parties, and other general revelry. Also masks. Lots and lots of masks. And while Mardi Gras masks are commonly feathered or bedazzled in some way, they come in all shapes and sizes, similar to the masks in the Art Institute's collection. So if you're looking for a little inspiration for your own Fat Tuesday mask, we've got some ideas for you. . .
The Kuba, who live in central Africa, use masks like this Mukenga mask in funeral ceremonies for the highest ranking men. In this particular mask, the artist uses luxurious symbolic materials to give expression to its power. The face is covered with the fur of the fearsome leopard; the ruff of the regal colobus monkey forms a beard; the protruding eyes recall the rotating, all-seeing eyes of the chameleon; a long, protruding trunk suggests the power of the elephant. A cluster of red parrot feathers accents the trunk and contrasts the weighty power of an elephant with the air flight of a bird. I think it goes without saying that Mardi Gras attendees would applaud such an elaborate mask.
If you're looking for something a bit simpler, we recommend looking to Saul Steinberg. Steinberg made no distinction between high and low art, creating covers and drawings for The New Yorker alongside masks made from brown paper bags and crayons.
This mask was not meant for a human, but a horse. It originally would have been attached to cloth or leather as part of an elaborate bridle and would have been placed on the horse's forehead, between the ears. The mask resembles a medusa-like monster, with a mouthful of bared teeth and long tusks hanging from either side.
A bit morbid, but facial molds of the dead—or death masks—have been taken since ancient times, and this death mask of Napoleon is one of the best known ever. The mold was taken by the Corsican physician Antommarchi on the island of St. Helena two days after Napoleon's death on May 5, 1821. The gaunt face with prominent cheekbones is a haunting image, recalling Napoleon the revolutionary war hero rather than the self-satisfied imperial image projected at the peak of his power.
What else can we say but laissez les bon temps rouler!
Mask (Mukenga), Kuba, Western Kasai region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, late 19th/mid-20th century. Laura T. Magnuson Fund.
Saul Steinberg. Untitled (Mask), 1959–62. Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Monster Mask from a Horse Bridle, China, Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1050–771 B.C.), c. 9th century B.C. Lucy Maud Buckingham Collection.
Dr. C. Francesco Antommarchi (from a mold by), cast by: Louis Richard and E. Quesnel. Death Mask of Napoleon, modeled 1821 (cast 1833). Estate of E. Blake Blair.