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  • Mask, Mimicry, Metamorphosis:Roger Caillois, Walter Benjamin and Surrealism in the 1930s
  • Joyce Cheng (bio)

However you think of it, it ends up as the fundamental fact of the mask. In this way the primitive, with all its implements and pictures, opens up for our benefit an infinite arsenal of masks: the masks of our fate—the masks with which we emerge from unconsciously experienced moments and situations that have now, at long last, been recuperated.

Impoverished, uncreative man knows of no other way to transform himself than by means of disguise. Disguise seeks the arsenal of masks within us. . . . In reality, the world is full of masks; we do not suspect the extent to which even the most unpretentious pieces of furniture (such as Romanesque armchairs) used to be masks, too. To hand over these masks to us, and to form the space and the figure of our fate within it—this is where folk art comes to meet us halfway. Only from this vantage point can we say clearly and fundamentally what distinguishes it from "more authentic" art, in the narrower sense.

—Walter Benjamin, "Some Remarks on Folk Art," 19291

It is a fact that all mankind wears or has worn a mask. This enigmatic accessory, with no obvious utility, is commoner than the lever, the bow, the harpoon or the plough. . . . Complete civilizations, some of them most remarkable, have prospered without having conceived the idea of the wheel, or, what is worse, without using it even though it was known to them. But they were familiar with the mask.

—Roger Caillois, The Mask of Medusa, 19642 [End Page 61]

That the experiential dimension and plastic figuration of metamorphosis were at the heart of surrealism in the 1930s can be seen in the two mythic figures that announced the movement's chief organ of the period, Minotaure (1933–1939): the bull-headed monster in ancient Mediterranean mythology from which the review takes its name and a ritualistic mask made with palm leaves from the Ethnographic Museum of Basel.3 But while the Minotaur on the cover page of the first issue remains a familiar iconography in the western tradition despite its placement amidst disparate components of a collage designed by Pablo Picasso, the identity of the small, strange face encrusted in the middle of the review's first page would have been obscure to most readers of the time. (Figs. 1 and 2) All that is available to the eye is three schematic and strategically placed orifices on what looks like a dark mass of wires or bristles. Neither man nor woman, neither bird nor beast, the inchoate face emerging from hair or vegetation is an intermediary being that hovers somewhere between the world of human beings and whatever lies outside of it. No clue as to the possible link between the Minotaur and the mysterious grass mask is available except the four-line poem written by a certain "P. E.," "Un visage dans l'herbe," ("A Face in the Grass") which appears beneath the image of the mask. An analysis of this poem, therefore, is the only way to work out what we might consider the plastic-poetic mission statement of Minotaure as a collective surrealist project.

Après l'insecte-feuille, l'homme-feuille.Un visage éclôt dans un nid de verdure.Le végétal séduit la pluie.L'eau, dans un trou, se livre au premier venu.4

(After the leaf-insect, the leaf-man.A face hatches in a nest of verdure.The vegetal seduces the rain.From a hole, water gives itself to the first to come.)

The main components of the poem—vegetation, insect, man, rain, water—are intertwined; the hyphenated nouns ("insecte-feuille," "homme-feuille"), as well as the ambiguous use of adjectival nouns ("végétal" in French being both noun and adjective, "le végétal" could therefore mean both "the plant" or "that which is vegetal"), construct for us a world of ambiguous, indistinct beings in a constant process of metamorphosis. Part-man, part-beast, part-plant, the hybrid creatures inhabit a world of inexplicable coupling and birth. Like the hatching of a...


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