Mask History

I first made the more than eighty stone masks measuring around 20 x 20 cm. and later photographed them. Masks were first used in the theater of ancient Greece and has been very important for the current western theater. It was at best from 550 to 220 BC. It was the beginning of modern Western theater, and some ancient Greek plays are still being performed today. They invented the genre tragedy (at the end of the 6th century BC), comedy (486 BC) and pieces with satire. The city state of Athens was a major cultural, political and military power during this period. Drama was in the city center. Theater was part of a festival called the Dionysia, in which the god Dionysus was honored. In the Dionysia the playwrights presented their work to an audience. It was a competition, with a winner and prizes. These two main genres were never mixed: they each had their own typical structure. Athens exported the festival to its numerous colonies and allies to make known their way of life.

The Greek Legacy

Greek art celebrates the human - it places mankind center stage, not as the mere plaything of the Gods, but as a creature capable of unearthly divinity and the bleakest mortality. The contribution of Greek Art lies not only in the technical perfection of the art itself but in the culture and mythos that was the basis of the arts. The spirit of the Ancient Greeks was inquisitive and adventurous, one that sought after the basic truths of human existence. The splendour of the art that this society produced is that it touches upon these truths, so that a Greek vase, sculpture or theatre mask can speak as strongly to us today as when it was first produced thousands of years ago.

The three great epochs of Greek Art, from the Geometric, Archaic and Classical periods, have been one of the chief influences upon Western art from ancient times to the present day. The geometric patterns and distortions of the Geometric and Archaic periods (1200-600 and 600-479BC) find their continuation in our greatest contemporary artists. Picassos' geometric figures in "Guernica", for example, seem to have exploded from an Archaic vase onto the canvas. The serene and balanced forms of the Classical era (479 - 323 BC) have also long been held as the ideal in western sculpture.

The plastic arts of the Ancient Greeks reached their zenith in the Hellenistic period (323 -31BC), where the most passionate emotions were depicted with a realism that was unexcelled until the Renaissance. . The technical perfection, and the principles of symmetry and balance laid out by the great masters Lysippus and Praxitles, have long been the study of Western artists. Yet the Greek legacy lies as much in the culture of myth that was the common inspiration of poets, painters and sculptors. Myth eludes definition; the very word suggests something unreal, something from the numinous regions of consciousness. Greek mythology is not original - stories of incestuous Oedipuses and vain Narcissi abound worldwide; but the great achievement of the Greeks was to explore these unreal archetypes of human fears and dreams and to transform them into something concrete and human. In so doing the Greeks created a corpus of themes that has been the basis of much subsequent Western art.

Perhaps the finest example of the Greeks' ability to create figures simultaneously archetypal and human is in the art of theatre. The Athenian Classical theatre might well be seen as the culmination of the Greeks' artistry. The origin of Greek theatre lay in rituals in honour of the God Dionysis, and it is the intensity and passion of ritual that imbues Greek theatre with an undying energy. One of the more curious aspects of the Greek theatre is the use of masks in performance. In a purely technical sense the mask was used as a device to enable the limited number of actors to change roles, and to be visible to the large audiences attracted by theatre. The mask allowed the actor to become an average figure, an archetype - king, hero, youth - which then allowed the audience to judge characters not on their appearance, but their actions. The Greek theatre thus became an exploration of the human body in space. Paul Hermans is one contemporary artist whose work explores this theme - his theatre masks use strong coloration and geometric figures to create characters plucked from the unconscious. You can see Paulís work at

Thanks, Anthony Hayes United Kingdom Feb 2, 2002

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