Masks – Research

Since this project was inspired by the idea of the plague doctor masks, I began my research with some historical background into the plague doctors.

plague doctor

“Paul Fürst, Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom (Holländer version)” by I. Columbina.

These ‘doctors’ were employed by civic bodies in the 17th and 18th centuries to treat or tend to plague victims and may represent the first public health practitioners, although they were rarely medically qualified. They did tend to the sick but their role included making sure that public health measures like isolation were enforced, counting cases of plague and organising disposal of bodies. They wore leather suits,hats and masks as barriers to infection. The masks had a ‘beak’ which was filled with herbs and spices to counteract bad odours which were believed to carry infection. A visit from one was seriously bad news; not only was their appearance scary, but they were harbingers of decease and probably carriers of infection.

Researching plague doctors made me think of the people working in West Africa to try and control the epidemic of Ebola in 2014. They also wore isolation suits and masks which must have been scary and dehumanising for their patients.

Ebola suit

Getty image from

This apparent contradiction between bringing healing or safety and being terrifying was explored in a Doctor Who episode ‘The Empty Child’ in which a small child wearing a gas mask, but otherwise ordinary clothes, became a thing of horror. It is not surprising perhaps, then, that plague doctor masks are popular at Halloween. The mask divorces the wearer from normal human interactions which depend heavily on reading facial expression and seeing the eyes.

doctor (2 of 3)

Following the advice of my tutor, I mind-mapped around the subject which lead me various trains of thought and roots for research.

Initially, I looked at masks which were used in healing ceremonies in non-industrialised cultures. Masks have been used widely, throughout time, to endow a wearer with mystique and adopted powers. The mask itself might possess power or it might represent a supernatural figure with the power of healing. The identity of the wearer is totally lost in the identity of the mask. To achieve this, these masks combine powerful graphic designs with symbols. The human face is abstracted to an ultimate degree, yet remains recognisably a face.

In the early 20th century, European artists were influenced by African art, notable Picasso, Matisse and others of their set in Paris (Heilbrunn, 2008). Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, is often cited to illustrate this influence, but it is seen in his later work, too, for instance ‘Weeping Woman, 1937‘ or in his linocut ‘Portrait of a Woman After Cranach the Younger, 1958’ .

Many sculptors have also turned to masks for inspiration such as Brancusi, Epstein, Gaudier-BrzeskaMoore and  Turnbull.

Masks, have, of course, been used for many purposes, not just medicine. They can invoke spirits, help assume a different personality, create fear, disguise identity. They have been used in almost every culture, modern and ancient, from Greek performance masks to modern masked protest.

Masks don’t just have a powerful abstract aesthetic, but can also be wonderfully sculptural as these masks from the collections of the British Museum demonstrate.

Not surprisingly, masks continue to be a rich seam mined by contemporary artists, particularly those who have cultural links to societies which have historically used symbolic masks. One such is Romuald Hazoumé from Benin.  He has been inspired to use the plastic jerry can which is used throughout his country for carrying contraband fuel and which is symbol of current exploitation and a past slave trade. He is concerned to take masks back out of a museum and make them relevant to modern life (Biro, 2011). The top of these carriers suggest very simple, stylised face, to which he adds rope, fabric or other materials to suggest modern day Africans. The attraction of these works lies in how he manages to endow such simple assemblages with great character and significance.


Another Benin artists,  Calixte Dakpogan, also uses found materials to create modern takes on the tradition of masks. These use much harder materials and are more inorganic in feel, reflecting his family background in blacksmithing (Pigozzi, (2016)).

It should not surprise that Benin has a rich heritage in sculpture and in particular sculpture of the face, and that artists there continue this tradition and sensitivity.

African-American artist who acknowledges African masks as a inspiration Willie Cole, using shoes. Whilst shoes have references to the individual, fashion, manufacturing, Cole’s shoes are unworn and uniform, and seem to comment more on consumerism rather than endowing the mask its elk with personality.

The mask was used both as a cultural reference and a challenge to American perception and portrayal of black people  by Jean-Michel Basquiat. ‘Black people are never portrayed realistically, not even portrayed, in Modern Art, and I glad to do that’ (Archer, 2015). His portrayal, even in his self portrait, is not realistic. Instead, it throws down a gauntlet down to the viewer.

Brian Junge, a Canadian artist with native British Colombian ancestry, has used Nike trainers to make masks which explore his cultural identity ‘but not in a post-colonial way’ (Tate interview). His choice of trainers was suggested by how prized they are now by young men of his band (Canadian for tribe) and how sports culture offers ‘a parallel with performance, regalia, costumes, event and ceremony’ (Tate interview (no date)).

Exploring the theme of masks offers artists great opportunities to combine cultural references with the possibility of portraying the individual in a non realistic way onto which many facets of character or interpretation can be projected.


Archer, M. (2015) Art Since 1960. United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson.

Biro, Y., Curator and Americas, the (2011) Reconfiguring an African icon: Odes to the mask by modern and contemporary artists from Three continents. Available at: (Accessed: 13 January 2016).

Heilbrunn, African influences in modern art | essay | Timeline of art history | the metropolitan museum of art (2008) Available at: (Accessed: 13 January 2016).

Pigozzi, Jean, ( 2016). Calixte Dakpogan – Pigozzi collection 2016 (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 21 January 2016).

Tate Interview (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 13 January 2016).

Trendacosta, K. (no date) The ‘science’ behind today’s plague doctor costume. Available at: (Accessed: 3 December 2015).

Picture references

“Paul Fürst, Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom (Holländer version)” by I. Columbina, ad vivum delineavit.     Paulus Fürst Excud[i]t. I [or J] Columbina has not, I think, been identified. Paul Fürst (1608–1666) was the publisher, and perhaps also the engraver. – Internet Archive’s copy of Eugen Holländer,Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin: Medico-Kunsthistorische Studie von Professor Dr. Eugen Holländer, 2nd edn (Stuttgart:Ferdinand Enke, 1921), fig. 79 (p. 171).Specifically the file diekarikaturunds00holl_0207.jp2 extracted from [174,178,046 bytes] in the folder Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(Holl%C3%A4nder_version).png#/media/File:Paul_F%C3%BCrst,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(Holl%C3%A4nder_version).png

UK News (2015) Available at: (Accessed: 13 January 2016).


About starrybird

I am mature student studying art with The Open College of the Arts. My passion is printmaking.
This entry was posted in Course Parts, Part 5 Developing Sculpture and Imagination, Research Point and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Masks – Research

  1. Pingback: Masks – Plague Doctor | OCA Sculpture 1 Learning Log

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