Winter is coming. Brace yourself for the invasion of Krampuses!
I am a big fan of Krampus runs (Krampuslaufen) and the village carnivals (Fasching) around Innsbruck. Initially I was drawn to them because they reminded me of the religious processions back home in Taiwan. Without doubt, the theatrical atmosphere of Fasching and Krampuslaufen easily gets the spectators hooked, no matter where they are from!
Krampus Costumes and Their Creators
Well-made costumes are works of art and I couldn’t stop admiring them. Somehow I half-imagined the creators of these mythological costumes to be shaman-like.
The facial expression brings out the soul of the character, which means obtaining a captivating mask is crucial for the wearer. Recently, after learning that a visit to a mask carver (Larvenschnitzer) can be arranged, I eagerly made a fan pilgrimage to his studio in the village of Ellbögen (just south of Innsbruck). The roadside studio was indeed radiating magic!
The Krampus Larvenschnitzer (mask maker)
Mr. Norbert Danler, who just turned 60, set up the studio in an old barn in 1984. It is adorned with myriad works and is an impressive sight for the passersby on the narrow road day and night. He welcomed me and my interpreter and led us into his studio which was full of the smell of wood and fur. There were so many works and materials filling up the space that it felt as if we entered an overwhelming Aladdin’s cave.
Showing Talent at a Young Age
Mr. Norbert Danler’s carving experience started when he was only 10 years old. He completed his first mask (the left one in the picture below) at age 13.
He originally worked at a foundry but later had to change profession due to an accident at work. Eventually, he devoted himself more and more to wood carving and became a master maker of masks. He was not academically trained but his talent is apparent. His works are excellent combinations of observation, imagination and execution.
He explained to us the various stages of his mask-making. He doesn’t draw 2D drafts on paper. Instead, he analyzes the characters of the actual wood, contemplates and then directly works on it. Chainsaws are useful for the rough cutting in the beginning but the details are refined by hand chiselling. You can already see the charm in these masks in progress.
He emphasised that the majority of the materials used in his masks are natural. These include pine wood, horsehair, animal teeth, furs and horns, all of which are harmonious with the life in the Alps. Some of his acquisitions were already vintage when he sourced them from the descendants of hunters. At times, he uses driftwood instead of horns which are priced by length. The use of luxury material also reflects the commissioner’s status.
The Hidden Face
Being an artist myself, I had great interest in the inner side of his masks, as it might reveal additional information of the maker. This side is “the second face”, as Mr. Danler put it, because it has to match the wearer. He sized up our faces and told us the measurements within seconds because he is that experienced.
Honestly, the inner sides looked spookier than I expected!
The articulated mask in the picture below is quite unusual. It consists of several parts which are connected by threads. I also saw a witch mask with a movable jaw.
Some masks have openings directly in the “eyes” but many have the holes slightly below the “eyes” instead. This not only frees up the design from the proportion of human faces, but also allows the application of glass or plastic eyes. Mr. Danler showed us a few masks with eyes that can be lit up with the power of a hidden battery.
The openings in the “nose” are also crucial for ventilation as it is quite physically demanding to be a Krampus: the props are heavy and the movements wild. Mr. Danler told us that he once hid his signature in the nostril of a mask — only the most treasured masks are signed.
The Life Cycle of a Krampus/Fasching Mask
If the masks are not coated with paint, Mr. Danler suggests the owners to rub the wooden surface frequently with their hands. (When the colouring comes from water-based dyes, it doesn’t fall off just from rubbing.) This way, sophisticated and beautiful patina will be developed over time.
During carnivals and Krampus runs, I have seen children wearing proper costumes, which certainly represented a considerable investment. If the owner cannot hand it down, what happens to the mask once it no longer fits? If it came from Mr. Danler’s studio, the owner has the option to bring it back and exchange it for a bigger one! Mr. Danler has some masks being circulated this way. The (proper) usage adds character to the masks. It is also possible to rent masks from Mr. Danler if you are a responsible person.
The Roles Women Play in Krampus/Fasching Events
A few years ago I visited the lovely Matschgerer Museum in Absam (a village east of Innsbruck), and was told that only men are allowed to dress up as their traditional Fasching characters — including the witches. I asked Mr. Danler if women buy masks for themselves. The answer is yes. He told me that in Patsch, there is a female Schellenschlagen club performing in carnivals, but in many other places — such as Imst — the inclusion of female performers is definitely a taboo. So how do women participate in traditional parades? They are in charge of the maintenance of the exquisite costumes and also sell Schnaps (strong liqueurs) and pretzels during the event.
Wood Carving and Other Works
Although Mr. Danler is known as a Larvenschnitzer, his works are not limited to sinister Krampus/Perchte Larven (masks). He also makes delicate nativity figurines, realistic statues, decorative edelweisses and comical Tyrolean farmers. You could tell that he was really having fun making them.
Krampus Festival in Japan
This year his masks were proudly exhibited in “Krampus Japan”, a yearly festival held for the fourth time. I am actually not so surprised that the custom of Krampus is embraced in Japan where fine craftsmanship is highly appreciated.
Danke noch einmal, Herr Danler!
Mr. Norbert Danler is very charismatic and interesting. We felt so inspired by the visit! If you would like to contact him, the details can be found here.
Notable & easily accessible Krampus runs (Krampuslaufen):
The photo on top of this page: © Ichia wu