File Note 88: Caroline Achaintre - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Simone Menegoi



Caroline Achaintre: People Today Images References Quote Biography Credits

Caroline Achaintre: People Today

So many masks lie at the roots of modern art! Les Demoiselles d’Avignon would not exist as we know them without the African masks that Picasso saw at the Palais du Trocadéro ethnographic museum, which inspired the faces of two female figures in that legendary painting. In the same period, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and other artists in Die Brücke group gave the faces they painted the jutting features of other tribal masks seen in anthropological museums: not just from Africa, in this case, but also from Inuit tribes and Oceania. Traditional Japanese masks were used to illustrate the Almanach (1912) of the other great German Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter. In Russia, Natalia Goncharova and other artists from the avant-garde group Jack of Diamonds turned their backs on Western figurative culture and sought inspiration in the kindly or terrifying expressions of Chinese masks, or the solemn features of the ritual masks used by Siberian shamans. But even before European artists discovered ‘primitive’ art, masks had played a fundamental role in Symbolist and fin de siècle culture. Mysterious animated masks float in the skies drawn by Odilon Redon; twisted, sneering carnival masks throng the canvases of Emil Nolde and James Ensor; disquieting mythological masks appear in the paintings of Fernand Khnopff and Arnold Böcklin. The mask is such an important subject in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European art that a few years ago it inspired a major exhibition Masks, from Carpeaux to Picasso1.

If that show had included contemporary artists, Caroline Achaintre would certainly have been part of it. Her work is like a highly condensed, very personal inventory of the whole gamut of masks that peopled art at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Her unique painted ceramic sculptures allude to this history: grotesque ones with huge clown noses; sinister black ones with hollow eyes and gaping lips; or elegant geometric liveries inspired by tribal art or contemporary fabrics. Some, fitted with ties so they can be worn, are mounted on leather cushions that suggest the shape of a head; others rest on a metal base, much like those found in an ethnographic museum. The boldly coloured, irregularly shaped wall hangings that the artist crafts with a traditional tufting technique often mimic portraiture, whilst abstracting the form on a giant scale. For instance, Wanderer (2012) appears to be a large, grave-looking face, mouthless, but with enormous empty eyes and arched brows while Moustache Eagle (2008), an outlandish, picturesque combination of the two title elements, has two holes that make it look like a mask. The artist’s watercolours are the testing ground where Achaintre develops the repertoire of forms, geometric patterns and colours that take on three-dimensional substance in her ceramic sculptures and the displays that host them. The masks are sometimes hard to make out, with ‘eyes’ that are blotches hanging in a coloured haze and ‘mouths’, if they have any, that are slanted lines in one corner of the page; or they seem to vanish completely, giving way (as they sometimes do in the hangings as well) to intricate abstractions. But the artist says that everything she does has figurative roots, and indeed, even in the creations that seem least tethered to recognisable forms, one tends to sense a ‘presence’ – a personality animistically endowed with perception and will. This effect is significantly accentuated by the titles, which Achaintre sees as an integral part of the works, moulding bizarre monikers that sound like pet names: Mooner, Meater, Bad Mad; Frogger, Waffler, BelleMer; Baac, Temp Mint, Posyno… flights of linguistic fancy through which the artist seems intent on giving her creatures – like the clay golems of Jewish legend – a spark of individual life.

Is Achaintre’s work just a formal divertissement? It certainly contains an element of play, and a liberating, infectious revelry in shape and colour. But there is something else as well. To understand what, we must go back to where we started, with the popularity of masks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. For turn-of-the century artists, they had a twofold, almost contradictory significance. On the one hand, they were a stylistic expedient that made it possible to leap past the conventions of realism, speeding down the path that led to art as an autonomous form of expression – what would soon come to be called ‘Abstraction’. On the other, masks offered a new and terribly effective vocabulary for portraying the contemporary world. In the work of Ensor and the Expressionists, masks do not hide the faces: they themselves are faces, monstrous ones, and for that very reason, ultimately recognisable. The avid, savage, demented grimaces of Ensor’s carnival masks are the true faces the painter attributed to the bourgeoisie of his hometown, Ostend; the grotesque features of Kirchner’s tribal masks are the true faces – brutish, neurotic, possessed – of the crowd the German painter saw in the streets of Berlin in his teens. Something similar is also there in Achaintre’s
work. On the one hand, her creations of paper, ceramic and wool have a wild grace of form and colour that suffices unto itself and sometimes they end up being ‘pure’ abstractions (and can be appreciated as such). On the other hand, whenever they are openly figurative (or their status is ambiguous enough to allow us to read them as such), they stage a subtle parody of our contemporary lifestyle, starting with the consumer mania of identifying with an object, an accessory, a style, to the point of merging with it entirely. Shopper (2012) is a mask that takes the shape of an upside-down shopping bag; Baac (2013) is an upended purse, the dangling handle of the former and crumpled one of the latter, serve as mouths. “You are what you buy”, both seem to mournfully croon – a concept underscored by the bases on which the artist places her ceramic creations, minimalist structures that are a cross between Donald Judd and the decor of a luxury boutique. Temp Mint (2013) is like an elegant black-and-white striped fabric (Chanel?) turned anthropomorphic: a fold serves as the mouth; two small holes hint at the eyes. Waffler (2012), with its golden colour and grid like texture, resembles just what the name would suggest: a waffle with human features. As for the ceramic masks mounted on leather cushions – like tongue-in-cheek tributes to the aggressive, bondage-style black leather heads full of studs and zippers that American artist Nancy Grossman made in the ’70s – they examine the parallel fetishization of commodities and sex. 

They’re beginning to look familiar, these ‘monsters’ of Caroline Achaintre’s. They are a gallery of ‘people today’, neurotic inhabitants of the contemporary metropolis: the fatuous fashion victim, the fanatical foodie, the compulsive patron of kink clubs, the New Age guru. They are our neighbours, our friends. They are us. To paraphrase Baudelaire, Achaintre might say, “Hypocritish viewer, — my fellow, — my brother!” 2


1. Masks, from Carpeaux to Picasso, curated by Edouard Papet, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 21 October 2008 – 1 February 2009; then at Institut Matildenhöhe, Darmstadt, 8 March – 7 June 2009 and Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 6 August – 25 October 2009.

2. Charles Baudelaire, ‘To the Reader’, The Flowers of Evil, translated by W. Aggeler, Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954.

Horrible Histories – 26 Groovy Episodes DVD (2005)

Petra Hartmann Kölner Stämme : Menschen – Mythen – Maskenspiel Vista Point (1991)

Susan Hiller (eds) The Myth of Primitivism, Perspectives on Art Routledge (1991)

Ronald T. Labaco Ettore Sottsass, Architect and Designer Merrell (2006)

Gustave Flaubert Bouvard and Pécuchet Penguin (1976)

Joris-Karl Huysmans Against Nature Penguin (2003)

‘Fumms bo wo taa zaa Uu,
kwii Ee.
dll rrrrr beeeee bo
dll rrrrr beeeee bo fumms bo,
dll rrrrr beeeee bo fumms bo wo,
dll rrrrr beeeee bo fumms bo wo taa,
dll rrrrr beeeee bo fumms bo wo taa zaa,
dll rrrrr beeeee bo fumms bo wo taa zaa Uu:’ Kurt Schwitters, Ursonate


Caroline Achaintre (b. 1969 Toulouse, France), lives and works in London. She graduated with an MA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College in 2003 and completed her BA in Fine Art at Chelsea in 2000. Her solo exhibitions include Mooner, Arcade, London (2014); Camp Coo, UH Galleries, Hertfordshire and Smith’s Row, Bury St. Edmunds (2013); Trip – Dip, Arcade, London (2012); Couleur Locale, Arcade, London, (2010); Six Strings, Blow de la Barra (2007); DEEDIE, The Showroom, London (2005). Selected group exhibitions include Decorum, Shanghai Power Station of Art (2014), Musée d’Arte Moderne de la Ville, Paris (2013); Six Possibilities for a Sculpture, La Loge, Brussels (2013); The London Open, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2012); Caroline Achaintre, Sara Barker, Alice Channer, Eastside Projects, Birmingham (2012); Material Matters, East Wing X Collection, The Courtauld Institute, London (2012); Slipped, Wysing Art Centre (2011); Collision, RISD Museum, Rhode Island (2010). Caroline Achaintre is represented by Arcade, London.


Simone Menegoi is a writer and curator based in Milan.