The Maschera dell'idiota manifests Wildt's interest in theatrical masks. In 1901 he had executed a now lost plaster group entitled L'uomo che ride e l'uomo che piange, of two mask-like heads, one laughing, one with melancholic expression, lying next to each other as if discarded upon the floor (Ferlier, op. cit., fig. 5). The group explored the comic and tragic duality innate to ancient Greek theatre, and reflects the sculptor's overriding concern for opposing emotions and physical states as seen in L’Anima e la sua veste (see preceding lot) and its progenitor, the Janus-like Carattere fiero - Anima gentile (1912).
In Maschera dell'idiota Wildt appears to have been more directly inspired by Japanese caricature, in particular, depictions of laughing and grimacing masks from Hokusai's Manga (published 1814-1878; see Ferlier, op. cit., p. 122). The sculptor's almost brutal cutting away of the lower part of the face recalls Hokusai's images of masks with movable lower jaws, their mouths so wide open in ecstatic laughter that their jaws are completely dislocated. Giorgio Nicodemi has also made comparison with Okina Masks or shikisanban used from the 15th century in traditional Japanese Noh plays, and which depict joyous old men with white faces, movable jaws and eyebrows (as discussed in Ferlier, op. cit., p. 122). With their pierced, almost closed, eyes, and severed jaws, they strongly parallel Wildt's own mask. The link is explicit in the marble versions of the present model, with their white faces against a dark ground.
Maschera dell'idiota finds its genesis in a 1903 commission from Franz Rose for the bathroom of his villa in Döhlau, Germany. The now destroyed ensemble entitled Spirito e Materia, comprised a bronze laughing mask applied to a large blue mosaic vase which stood upon a cippolino marble base with projecting legs and was surmounted by a gilt bronze plaque set with a ruby and a diamond. The project almost certainly embodied a now lost symbolist significance probably prescribed by the patron, Franz Rose, and was strongly linked to the aesthetic of the Secessionist movement. Unlike the present model, Spirito e Materia retained its facial integrity, with lower jaw in tact. However, Spirito e Materia was evidently viewed as the model for Maschera dell'idiota by Wildt, since, throughout his life, the sculptor dated the latter to 1903 even though it was first exhibited in bronze in Milan in 1919 and in marble (acquired by Gabriele D'Annunzio) in Livorno in 1925. The scholarly consensus is that Maschera dell'idiota would have been conceived between 1915 and 1918. (Ferlier, op. cit., p. 122).
Ferlier has noted a concordance between Maschera dell'idiota and Franz Xaver-Messerschmidt's Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing (1777-1781; private collection, Belgium), with the same prominent, perfectly arranged, top row of teeth and grimacing expression, as well as the demented masked faces in paintings by James Ensor (1860-1949). She puts particular emphasis on a possible reference to Dostoevsky's The Idiot, published in 1869 and translated into Italian in 1902, one year before Wildt executed Spirito e Materia.
A final influence may be identified in the metopes and other architectural sculpture carved with grotesque faces from Giulio Romano's Palazzo Te in Mantua (built for Federico II Gonzaga between 1524-1534). The form of Maschera dell'idiota is ultimately decorative, and, like it's progenitor Spirito e Materia could be incorporated into an architectural scheme. As with Romano's visages, the present mask is disconcerting to the viewer, both because of the violence of the severed and discarded jaw and because it provokes the question: what is the face laughing at? There is an implicit darkness within the laughter, which is underscored by the physical vacuum behind the eyes and the loss of the jaw, which results in a looming overbite. As with all of his great works, Wildt provides the viewer with a series of dichotomies: material (bronze versus marble), thematic (comedy threatened by menace) and metaphysical (the unfathomable soul concealed by the physicality of the mask).
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