American Sculptor Anna Coleman Gave a New Life to the Disfigured Veterans of WWI With Their ‘Portrait Masks’.
Warning: this article contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.
The background of a national disaster.
Toward the end of WWI, millions of soldiers were returning from the trenches, some of them bearing the terrible marks of trench warfare.
Before the Great War, facial wounds could certainly be life threatening but were still a lesser concern than infections, amputations and loss of limbs.
But the introduction of modern weaponry, such as heavy artillery, machine guns and poison gas, would change forever the military experience. The distance between opposite trenches was making the situation even riskier as the combatants seemed to be thinking they could peer rapidly enough into the enemy position with impunity, while dodging their fire. But, even with the protection of their steel helmets, they tragically were finding out that it did not work that way.
As a result, tens of thousands of soldiers had been so badly disfigured that they were unable to return to normal life once they had been discharged. They were physically and psychologically victimized by their mutilations. These men were known by the public as “Les Gueules Cassées”, or “Les Mutilés de la Face” — (“Mutilated of the Face”).
The price to be paid for being disfigured
Coming back home after being demobilized, these men were reduced to such a terrible condition that it caused them utmost anguish and embarrassment. In many cases they felt they were viewed as freaks or worse, monsters, eerily reminiscent of the disturbing characters or the strange apparitions straight out of an expressionist movie.
The public reaction was terrible. People would turn away at their sight. Strangers were scared, so the unfortunate soldiers preferred to hide. The psychological trauma they endured was beyond imagination. It was as though these valorous veterans seemed to be condemned to a secluded future without a chance at rehabilitation.
Then a miracle happened
Doctors had performed various medical treatments, but a majority of the victims had suffered injuries so horrifying that they just could not be easily treated.
Then a miracle happened to these unfortunate soldiers. A new technology called the portrait masks was being pioneered in England. These masks were inspired from photographs taken before the war and were painted in such a way to resemble the former physical features of the patient as a facial prosthesis. The veterans had now a chance at a new life.
Francis Derwent Wood (1871–1926), a British sculptor, the founder of the Department of Masks for Facial Disfigurement at the London General Hospital, originally developed the new technique to hide the mutilated soldiers’ faces. He ran a studio familiarly called the ‘Tin Noses Shop’ where he helped severely injured veterans. By 1918 the Shop had created over 200 prosthetic masks. This may not seem much, but the very complex work involved with each operation has to be taken into consideration.
Derwent Wood became a pioneer in the use of metal masks, an improvement in term of longevity and weight reduction over the previous models made of rubber.
Later in 1917, the American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd (1878–1939), a wonderful aesthetic surgeon and sculptor, enhanced the technology pioneered by Derwent Wood.
Ladd, who was living in Boston, learned about the “Tin Noses Shop”, became enthusiastic about it and decided she would play her part too.
She received support from the Red Cross and was sent to Paris where she opened her own studio, the Studio for Portrait Masks, in a Paris street called Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs toward the end of the war.
She quickly understood that her talent as a sculptor could help these soldiers, and that she would be able to guarantee them an effective recovery — at least in terms of appearance. She was going to produce masks that would allow men who had given everything for their country to return home as physically unchanged as possible.
It is estimated that she helped a hundred wounded soldiers to get a ‘tin face’ as the mask was called.
Back in time: A visit at the Studio.
The National Library of Medicine has kept a 1918 silent film that shows Anna Coleman Ladd at work in the studio.
In this poignant film, we see Coleman and her team at work with the soldiers.
The movie begins in the studio with Coleman chatting with a young soldier. We can see that the wall is lined with a strange gallery of plaster facemasks.
Dressed in military uniform, Anna Coleman Ladd evaluates how the shape is fitting the smiling young soldier who removes the prosthesis to reveal the part where his jaw once used to be. He reattaches the chin in the most casual manner. The scene seems to be relaxed and friendly even though we know better. It becomes evident the mask plays a crucial role in creating an acceptable connection with the world. It helps the soldiers to reattach themselves to a pretense of normalcy. The movie shows Ladd working with a team of craft people and artists who are seen in their daily working environment.
Ladd and Derwent Wood were actually not the first to practice plastic surgery: the first book on the subject had been published during the Renaissance by Italian surgeon Tagliacozzi.
The fabrication process of the individual masks.
First of all, Coleman and her team tried to create a nice surrounding to help the soldiers relax and get comfortable.
Although some masks needed to cover the whole face, the majority of them were designed to cover only a portion.
For example, a sailor named Walter Yeo was one of the first to receive surgery, mostly focused on the eye area.
Coleman used a preliminary plaster cast of the face to map the extent of the damage.
Photographs provided by the families would help her in her tedious work of reconstruction. She labored until her patients were satisfied by the restoration plan. Clearly, this very delicate operation was not without pain and required a massive undertaking on Coleman’s part.
Once the copper mask was ready, Ladd would begin the exquisitely difficult process of recreating a natural skin tone.
The copper mask was created by immersion in a copper bath for two days until a thin film was deposited on top of it, producing a light mask that could be painted upon. The final product was the mask that Coleman applied to the patient. It was certainly difficult for her to obtain a coloration that was blending well no matter the illumination levels.
If the soldier’s lower part of face had been destroyed, Coleman would have to remodel the mouth and the lips and provide a space for a cigarette holder as needed. She could also add a fashionable (but fake) moustache although it was made from real hair.
At some point in the film we see a female assistant immersing an ear, wrapped in wires and plated with copper, into a chemical solution. The ears were attached by eyeglasses and a false moustache or positioned with spectacles. If not possible, a wire could also be used.
This work of approximation was a very tedious one but once done, Coleman and her patients would appreciate the work well done.
In another scene of the movie we see Coleman putting touches on a soldier’s nose in a paradoxically relaxed atmosphere.
The silent movie’s last scene is that of a soldier who takes away his plastered mask as if it were a toy. While he is helped by an assistant, he is facing the camera, ‘noseless’ or ‘faceless’, giving us a quick glance just as the movie ends. This striking vision of a man who, for one moment, has a face, and for another does not, will follow us forever.
The ethics of the Studio of Portrait Masks.
During a year and a half, Ladd and her colleagues sculpted ninety-seven masks, each one a labor of love, talent and patience. The cost involved was low because Anna Coleman’s services were donated. But it was an enormous undertaking.
There were too many patients and when funding stopped, the Red Cross closed the Studio’s doors.
Ladd was a classically trained sculptor. Extremely proficient in the design and the construction of meticulously precise prosthetics, she contributed to the advancement of a new craft and science, known as anaplastology.
Anaplastology is basically the restoration of missing or malformed anatomy and is still used these days.
It seems strange to think of the sculptors of the Classic period who were painstakingly carving large blocks of marble and creating splendid forms out of nothing. A sculptor like Coleman rebuilt what the form was after it had been pulverized. Her work would be more comparable to that of the restorer restoring a Renaissance bust to its pristine and original condition.
Coleman’s contribution to a noble cause
After the war people stopped paying attention to the fate of the wounded veterans. Ladd went back to Boston, where she resumed her previous career.
In 1932, the French Government made Anna Coleman Ladd a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, the illustrious Legion of Honor, to thank her for the incredible services she had rendered in the name of peace, redemption and reconciliation. It seemed that she was not heard and twenty years later a similar and worst conflict indicated that people had not learned the lessons of history.
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