The Man in the Mask and Other Art: A Backstory


The man in the mask, which I describe in The Fall: Part 3, is a real painting. I saw it at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History years ago. I’d gone to Albuquerque for a conference and took part of a day to see the local sights, much like Katelyn does in the story. My description is from old memories, and I doubt I have a way to find the painting now, but my recollection is accurate … as memories go. 

The Man in the Mask

The painting of the man in the mask was placed on the back wall of the main gallery. The canvas was less than two feet by three feet, the size of many portraits. I had started touring the room clockwise and had viewed a number of interesting paintings. I remember none but the one that dominated the left wall, a life-sized painting of a woman wearing an evening gown and standing in a pleasant, well-appointed room. I liked it but wasn’t sure why I should care about it. I realize now that it reminds me of portraits one sees of donors, and perhaps that is who she was. As I made my way around the room, I noticed that whoever had done the lighting had done an excellent job on all the pieces. The curator and staff had done well in creating an inviting experience. I relaxed and wandered, enjoying and taking in the colors and shapes and the subjects and themes of the paintings. I may have not rounded a large wall as Katelyn does, but, when I turned to the back wall, I abruptly and with some shock, came face to face with the portrait of the man in the mask.

As I remember, the portrait was just of his head. If his neck or shoulders showed, they were obscured in the darkness of the surrounding colors. What I noticed above all else was that the painting was difficult to see because of the lighting and the glass that covered the painting. It was as if the person doing the lighting had gotten tired, had set the light to where he thought it might work and said, “whatever,” and called the job done. As I backed up from the painting, I could see the brighter colors and large shapes fairly well, but I really couldn’t see the details because the colors, except for his face and mask, were dark, and there was glare on his face.

When I walked somewhat closer, the details were still dim and the glare was worse. When I stepped to the side, all I got was glare. I felt drawn to the painting and found the lighting problems extremely annoying as I really wanted to see this particular piece clearly. It was when I walked up within a foot and straight on that I blocked the light. I still could not see the painting though because what I saw instead was myself reflected feature by feature in it. My eyes were matched by his, my nose, cheeks, mouth all were matched. It was almost like being absorbed into the painting. Like Katelyn, I found the experience unnerving. I thought at first it was because his mask covered the lower parts of his face instead of his eyes, as is customary. Then, I thought maybe it was his eyes themselves that were making me uncomfortable, but they held no specific emotion; however, I felt his look was challenging me.

Psychologists call it projection: when a person’s inner feelings and thoughts are projected onto another and attributed to that person. Carl Jung called it seeing the shadow and animus, the hidden parts of ourselves we wish to hide (shadow) and the best parts of ourselves (animus), both of which we are usually unaware. Mystics call it reflection of one’s human spirit or one’s eternal Soul.

I’m glad I chose to look at the portrait from multiple angles and wonder about the lighting. It took me many passes to “get it.” Unlike Katelyn, I only visited the museum once, but, after looking at the portrait, I went to see what else the museum had on view. I then walked back to visit the man again and approached from a different angle. I walked through the gauzy fabric maze several times, revisiting the man in between trips through the fabric panels. I’ve thought over the years that, after my first try, I could have gone to the Information booth and complained that it was lighted poorly or asked why it was presented the way it was. Or, I could have been the one to say, “whatever,” and just walk away. I’m glad I chose to go deep. I do hope the man in the mask is still in public view somewhere and still lighted so he can challenge viewers to go deep within themselves to bring out the worst and incorporate it and to bring out the best to be nurtured.