Faces of War- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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Sculptors and artists designed lifelike masks for gravely wounded soldiers. (Anna Coleman Ladd papers, Archives of American Art, S.I.)

Faces of War

Amid the horrors of World War I, a corps of artists brought hope to soldiers disfigured in the trenches

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The journey that led a soldier from the field or trench to Wood's department, or Ladd's studio, was lengthy, disjointed and full of dread. For some, it began with a crash: "It sounded to me like some one had dropped a glass bottle into a porcelain bathtub," an American soldier recalled of the day in June 1918 on which a German bullet smashed into his skull in the Bois de Belleau. "A barrel of whitewash tipped over and it seemed that everything in the world turned white."

Stage by stage, from the mud of the trenches or field to first-aid station; to overstrained field hospital; to evacuation, whether to Paris, or, by way of a lurching passage across the Channel, to England, the wounded men were carried, jolted, shuffled and left unattended in long drafty corridors before coming to rest under the care of surgeons. Multiple operations inevitably followed. "He lay with his profile to me," wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. "Only he has no profile, as we know a man's. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone."

Those patients who could be successfully treated were, after lengthy convalescence, sent on their way; the less fortunate remained in hospitals and convalescent units nursing the broken faces with which they were unprepared to confront the world—or with which the world was unprepared to confront them. In Sidcup, England, the town that was home to Gillies' special facial hospital, some park benches were painted blue; a code that warned townspeople that any man sitting on one would be distressful to view. A more upsetting encounter, however, was often between the disfigured man and his own image. Mirrors were banned in most wards, and men who somehow managed an illicit peek had been known to collapse in shock. "The psychological effect on a man who must go through life, an object of horror to himself as well as to others, is beyond description," wrote Dr. Albee. "...It is a fairly common experience for the maladjusted person to feel like a stranger to his world. It must be unmitigated hell to feel like a stranger to yourself."

The pains taken by both Wood and Ladd to produce masks that bore the closest possible resemblance to the prewar soldier's uninjured face were enormous. In Ladd's studio, which was credited with better artistic results, a single mask required a month of close attention. Once the patient was wholly healed from both the original injury and the restorative operations, plaster casts were taken of his face, in itself a suffocating ordeal, from which clay or plasticine squeezes were made. "The squeeze, as it stands, is a literal portrait of the patient, with his eyeless socket, his cheek partly gone, the bridge of the nose missing, and also with his good eye and a portion of his good cheek," wrote Ward Muir, a British journalist who had worked as an orderly with Wood. "The shut eye must be opened, so that the other eye, the eye-to-be, can be matched to it. With dexterous strokes the sculptor opens the eye. The squeeze, hitherto representing a face asleep, seems to awaken. The eye looks forth at the world with intelligence."

This plasticine likeness was the basis of all subsequent portraits. The mask itself would be fashioned of galvanized copper one thirty-second of an inch thick—or as a lady visitor to Ladd's studio remarked, "the thinness of a visiting card." Depending upon whether it covered the entire face, or as was often the case, only the upper or lower half, the mask weighed between four and nine ounces and was generally held on by spectacles. The greatest artistic challenge lay in painting the metallic surface the color of skin. After experiments with oil paint, which chipped, Ladd began using a hard enamel that was washable and had a dull, flesh-like finish. She painted the mask while the man himself was wearing it, so as to match as closely as possible his own coloring. "Skin hues, which look bright on a dull day, show pallid and gray in bright sunshine, and somehow an average has to be struck," wrote Grace Harper, the Chief of the Bureau for the Reeducation of Mutilés, as the disfigured French soldiers were called. The artist has to pitch her tone for both bright and cloudy weather, and has to imitate the bluish tinge of shaven cheeks." Details such as eyebrows, eyelashes and mustaches were made from real hair, or, in Wood's studio, from slivered tinfoil, in the manner of ancient Greek statues.

Today, the only images of these men in their masks come from black-and-white photographs which, with their forgiving lack of color and movement, make it impossible to judge the masks's true effect. Static, set for all time in a single expression modeled on what was often a single prewar photograph, the masks were at once lifelike and lifeless: Gillies reports how the children of one mask-wearing veteran fled in terror at the sight of their father's expressionless face. Nor were the masks able to restore lost functions of the face, such as the ability to chew or swallow. The voices of the disfigured men who wore the masks are for the most part known only from meager correspondence with Ladd, but as she herself recorded, "The letters of gratitude from the soldiers and their families hurt, they are so grateful." "Thanks to you, I will have a home," one soldier had written her. "...The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do."

By the end of 1919, Ladd's studio had produced 185 masks; the number produced by Wood is not known, but was presumably greater, given that his department was open longer and his masks were produced more quickly. These admirable figures pale only when held against the war's estimated 20,000 facial casualties.

By 1920, the Paris studio had begun to falter; Wood's department had been disbanded in 1919. Almost no record of the men who wore the masks survives, but even within Ladd's one-year tenure it was clear that a mask had a life of only a few years. "He had worn his mask constantly and was still wearing it in spite of the fact that it was very battered and looked awful," Ladd had written of one of her studio's early patients.

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