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PORTRAIT. In Pantin, Alaric Chagnard engraves emotions in wood with his theatrical masks

In his workshop based in Pantin, in Seine-Saint-Denis, Alaric Chagnard has been making masks for entertainment companies for more than twenty years. (©Sven Geslin)

tools in hand, Alaric Chagnard carve the wood. In a few hours, what was originally just a block will take the shape of a face. On the wall of his studio at 23 rue Pasteur in Pantin (Seine-Saint-Denis), a dozen masks are hooked. All are inspired by his countless travels. For more than twenty years, the craftsman has been making them for theater, dance or circus companies.

His shirt stained with plaster, the forty-something draws, sculpts and shapes his masks. “These are not simple creations, they convey emotions,” he says. Emotions that he will seek from the four corners of the earth. Pointing to one of his productions, Alaric Chagnard confides that he added Mont-Fuji soil to it because, according to him, “it makes things different”.

Carve wood to carve emotions

With his gouge, a concave chisel and his mallet, Alaric Chagnard seeks to define the shapes of his next mask. “All the complexity is to fix the character traits.” Giving sharp blows in the wood, he hollows out and cuts the eyebrow arches. An important element, the more pronounced they are, the more the anger will come out on stage through the acting of the actors.

Nevertheless, the native from Avignon wishes to transmit several emotions from its masks. “On stage, lighting is important. The lines of force of the mask do not appear in the same way depending on the inclination of the light,” he explains, positioning his desk lamp under a face made of plaster. This gesture, Alaric Chagnard repeats it several times a day. It allows him to see the progress of his work, the shapes he carves. A habit that reassures him before sending his creations to the theater stages.

“I have to leave a door open to other emotions. A complex balance.”

The craftsman worked in December 2021 for a theater company with deaf and dumb actors, including Emmanuelle Laboritthe first deaf and mute to have received a Moliere. Thus, several artists marched in his studio for Alaric Chagnard to take the imprint of their face. These serve as a model.

Once the plaster is hard, Alaric Chagnard can superimpose paper, resin, or clay on it to make the mask. “It was a real challenge,” he explains. Alaric Chagnard had to revise his design. His masks, usually whole (their shape covers the entire face) or articulated (the lower part opens like a jaw), have given way to more open creations revealing part of the actors’ faces because “the language of signs is done in part with the facies”.

In 1999, then a literature teacher in Seine-Saint-Denis, a friend suggested that he visit an exhibition on the masks worn by the Barbier Mueller Foundation which highlights the cultures of “forgotten” civilizations. Organized at Paris, the “The other face” collection stores hundreds of African masks. “I didn’t want to go there, it got me drunk,” the 48-year-old craftsman remembers today. Reluctantly, he ventures into this universe he had never encountered before. Within minutes, a “connection,” he says, took place between him and the masks.

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At the back of his workshop at 23 rue Pasteur in Pantin, masks made of wood by Alaric lie on a shelf.
At the back of his workshop at 23 rue Pasteur in Pantin, masks made of wood by Alaric lie on a shelf. (©Sven Geslin)

Alaric Chagnard’s intention is not only to give life to his creations. In 2015 and 2017, he set out to make these modeled faces shine all over the world. During one of his trips to South Korea, in Andong, he meets a mask sculptor whose son works in the association Imaco (International mask arts & culture organization). The latter tries to introduce the mask as an intangible heritage of humanity to Unesco. To represent it in France, Alaric Chagnard has put together a dossier on the major aesthetic currents and its use in the theater for several centuries.

French and international influences

The craftsman did not acquire his know-how in a snap. In the early 2000s, the meeting with Etienne Champion, creator of masks for the theater, allowed him to learn how to make them. “I already had one foot in the art. But nothing concrete, I drew and painted when I could”, explains the former teacher who followed Etienne’s advice.

Having learned the first bases of production, Alaric Chagnard then draws inspiration from his various experiences accumulated during his travels. “I don’t refuse to seek influences from right to left,” he confides. South Korea, Japan, Mali, Burkina Faso… he admits that he left on a whim in the early 2000s with the hope of meeting mask makers.

During a trip to Indonesia, in Bali, he is confronted with a scene he will never forget. In a carnival, he sees a dancer playing Rangda, a demonic queen according to traditional Balinese mythology. “Suddenly, time froze. All eyes were on him. A moment of magical suspension”, recalls the craftsman. Since then, in his workshop where sketches, moulds, tools and his radio set that he turns on daily to “avoid” an atmosphere that is too quiet, Alaric Chagnard tries to bring his masks to life.

Alaric, with his mask of Stéphane Malandrin's
Alaric, with his mask of Stéphane Malandrin’s “Book Eater”. Sometimes it goes behind the mask. When he wears them, the craftsman is no longer, an imaginary character takes his place.

Incarnation

To design them, he sometimes goes behind to wear them. Once the new face is made of wood, clay, resin or fabric on him, Alaric Chagnard is no more. No need to ask him if he is present, it is an imaginary character who takes over. Depending on the masks he wears, a personality with an aggressive or fearful temperament emerges.

At the bottom of a cardboard box, he takes the mask of Stéphane Malandrin’s “Book Eater”, then positions it in front of his face. Immediately, like a hungry rodent, his lips move back and forth. His eyes widen and reveal his desire to engulf the world around him. An improvisation that surely comes to him from his theater workshops that he leads in various colleges. The fascinating scene ends when he removes this face he has made himself. Alaric Chagnard is back, tools in hand, facing his desk. New masks are taking shape.

By Sven GESLIN

In partnership with the Journalist Training and Development Center (CFPJ).

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