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Swiss Masks

Swiss Masks

Unknown artist, 20th century. Wood, fur and cloth, 50 x 46 cm, 48 x 40 cm, 52 x 45 cm (LRTB). Switzerland


From the team

Kathy Wheeler, curator of collections at the Irma Stern Museum:

Standing in Irma’s lounge in The Firs one gets the distinct impression that one is being watched. If you look above the picture rail you will see these scary masks looking down on you.

The masks come from the Lötschental valley in the canton of Valais in Switzerland. They form part of a unique local tradition known as Tschägättä, a Swiss carnival that takes place between the Catholic holiday of Candlemass and Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins. Figures wearing masks and oversized clothing appear in the evening to roam the streets and chase and frighten onlookers. In the past the tradition was practised by young unmarried men, but today married men, women and children also take part.

Masked carnival figures wear outsize clothing covered with black or white fur, colourful mittens, a cow bell hanging down from a belt, and carry a stick. The distinctive features of the Tschägättä costume is a carved wooden mask, made from Avenholz, a local pine wood, which is decorated with animal fur and teeth, of which these masks are examples.

These masks form part of Irma Stern’s personal collection which she adds to throughout her life. She collects items to live with and to inspire her art. Returning from a trip to Europe in 1957 with one of these masks as a new acquisition, the local Cape Times newspaper reported about it, describing it as “a great, leering mask, fringed with tufts of sheepskin, its open mouth displaying two rows of broken, stained teeth”. These Swiss masks form an interesting comparison with the masks on display which form part of the African collection at the museum.


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