“Man is least himself”, Oscar Wilde wrote 125 years ago, “when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” But what if the truth that the mask helps us realise is that there is nothing beneath our masks but more masks, until we reach that most terrifying mask of all? “Masks beneath masks”, as Salmon Rushdie eerily imagined in his novel The Satanic Verses, “until suddenly the bare bloodless skull.”

The macabre riddle of the skull mask that masks the skull was given a fresh spin this week by the coincidence of two ostensibly unrelated news stories originating from opposite ends of the globe. Just as schoolchildren in Zibo City, China, were photographed marking World No Tobacco Day by hiding their faces behind creepy photocopies of a chain-smoking skull while holding oversized cigarettes, a team of researchers at the University of Montana announced that it had solved the mystery behind a clutch of eight Aztec masks made from human skulls, whose meaning had flummoxed archaeologists since they were unearthed three decades ago.

Forensic scrutiny of the 15th-Century crania revealed that the gruesome masks were probably fashioned from the skulls of defeated warriors or from the bones of nobility who betrayed the emperor Axayacatl, who reigned from 1468-1481. Like the puffing skulls who were ironically brought to life this week by Chinese children seeking to remind their peers of the dangers of smoking, the re-animated remains of the vanquished in Mexico may have been intended as a warning to anyone contemplating another life-threatening behaviour, in this case treachery.

The image of society as a morbid masquerade of insidious skeletons, whose superficial veneer of disingenuous geniality is easily stripped away, recalls one of the more ghoulish imaginations in modern art. Obsessed since childhood with the carnivalesque masks that his parents sold in their souvenir shop, the Anglo-Belgian artist James Ensor saw society itself as a parade of bodies: grotesque and grimacing, disfigured and diseased. In his 1888 painting Masks Mocking Death, Ensor reinvents for a new era the ghastly visions of Hieronymus Bosch, who likewise perceived beneath veils of social respectability a cancerous surfeit of vice. Any attempt to disentangle in Ensor’s maniacal scene the masked from the masking, the skull from the skin, is merely to excavate new layers of mummery, deception, and disguise.

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