Meditation on a Mask (On Marshall Soules’ Photographs of Wall Masks in Havana)

(On Marshall Soules’ Photographs of Wall Masks in Havana)

“We are only slightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.”  Virginia Woolf

(for Dan Pilling who first introduced me to masks)

By J.S. Porter

I am not the face above.  Not yet.  I have lesions and nicks, scars, lines and peelings, but not as many as this face, this mask.  (Gertrude Stein to Pablo Picasso on his portrait of her: That’s not me. Picasso to Stein: Not yet.)

You are what you’re haunted by.  I’m haunted by the mask on the face of Baptiste, a Parisian mime, who stars in Michel Carné’s “Les Enfants du Paradis” (Children of Paradise).  In his mask and movement, there is longing, melancholy, and ecstasy

Marshall Soules takes a suite of photographs of faces (masks) on street walls in Havana in 2016.  Behind each mask is a number.  The one above is 7—9452

Soules is a seeker, a wanderer—a discoverer.  He lives on Vancouver Island, travels the world with his camera, and seems to have a special affection for Cuba

He takes a picture of a picture, which is painted over, sprayed over, with a fissure in the concrete, palimpsest on palimpsest

Person = persona = mask

Faces and masks, masks and faces, each bound to the other like skin and bone.  Suppose there is no face, only masks

Masks conceal and reveal at the same time

Death masks, goalie masks, catchers’ masks, superhero masks, African masks, False Face masks, Covid masks, oxygen masks, Halloween masks, theatre masks, cultural masks, gas masks, masks for robbers and gunmen, masks for carnival

Nature lives by masks and veils. The chameleon is not the exception but the rule. The common octopus gathers its environment around itself so as to make its presence indistinguishable from the environment

Take a line for a walk

Miro says that’s how paintings start– how a mask begins

Philosopher of the mask – Oscar Wilde : “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth

Masks more revelatory of the face than the face

What we pretend to be real is more real than the real we think we present to ourselves and each other

Poet of the mask: Octavio Paz.  The poem is a mask/that hides the void—

The strength of this Cuban mask and others by Soules is the visible disintegration

Lines go for walks, but they don’t complete their journeys – paint peels,  the elements happen, defacement happens. The will-to-erase is as strong as the will-to-make

The message of masks: no face lasts, every face a study in decay and disintegration

Richard Kostelanetz writes the word disintegration as the first line of his seven-line poem “Disintegration,” and then enacts the process

The lines grow ever fainter until only the ghost of the word lingers in the last line, a faint presence only imagined, a scattering of dots

Cézanne and his mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire. He paints it 87 times, with objects and without, until the final watercolour paintings in their few lines and dabs of colour suggest but do not delineate presence. What is the face of the mountain when all the veils are lifted

Why does a photograph of a face, with over-writing and peeling and fractures, seem more life-like, more real, than a photograph of a smooth, unmarked face?  Because it, the marred face, knows the end of the journey whereas the smooth face knows only the beginning

No one exits Earth unbroken.  No artist makes a mark unmindful of its inevitable erasure


Other Cuban Wall Masks by Marshall Soules

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