Any enduring romanticism for war was obliterated by the industrialized brutality of World War I, from which legions of soldiers returned disfigured by facial injuries. The rise of Modernism in Europe from this carnage is well-known, but in the United States it had a different impact, encouraging both heightened patriotism and the emergence of symbols like the mask. One artist, Anna Coleman Ladd, turned her neoclassical training into a tool for sculpting new faces for the defaced.
In Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War, recently released by Oxford University Press, Wake Forest University Professor David Lubin explores Ladd’s work in the greater context of US artists working during and after World War I. Beginning with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, an event used in propaganda to galvanize American interest in the war, Lubin’s research stretches up to 1933, with the emergence of the Third Reich and a new military era. “The first World War was the first fully industrialized war, and an important aspect of that industrialization was the mass production and dissemination of war-related images,” Lubin writes. “They informed and misinformed opposing populations about the need to go to war, the nature of war itself, and the consequences of war.”
And one of those consequences was les gueules cassées, or the “broken faces,” as the hundreds of thousands of disfigured soldiers were called in France. Medicine had improved enough so soldiers could survive previously fatal injuries, yet those wounds were freshly horrific with machine guns and trench warfare that often left the delicate facial tissue exposed. Noses were reduced to holes, jaws broken beyond repair, eyes blinded, and whole physiognomies blurred by ripped flesh. As Harold Gillies, a doctor who treated thousands of facial injuries, said of his ward: “Only the blind keep their spirits up.”
Ladd was among several sculptors who used their skills to fashion masks so soldiers could more easily walk in public without shocking and provoking gawking. The Boston-based artist joined others, like Francis Derwent Wood, who were making prostheses out of copper or tin that could be worn like glasses with spectacle bows over the ears. Through the American Red Cross, Ladd set up her small Studio for Portrait Masks in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1917, its homey interior designed to give comfort and dignity to her patients. Scarred veterans’ transformation began with a suffocating plaster cast process used to capture each of their new imperfections.
Ladd’s previous work was in figurative sculpture, including several bronzes exhibited at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. She gave each mask the same attention to detail seen in her freestanding sculptures, finishing by covering the metal with enamel and hand-painting the flesh tones to match the wearer, taking into consideration both sunlight and cloudy days. Real hair was added for mustaches and eyebrows. Collaborating with Diana Blair of the Harvard Medical Unit and fellow sculptors Jane Poupelet, Louise Brent, and Robert Vlerick, the Parisian studio worked to make facsimiles of faces as they looked before their ruin.
“Fervently committed to their task, they created a total of ninety-seven life masks during their eleven months in operation,” Lubin writes. “And yet, for all of that, the number seemed woefully inadequate. Industrialized modern warfare was producing deformities on a scale well beyond the recuperative means of nineteenth-century-style artisanship.”
For her efforts, Ladd received the Légion d’Honneur Croix de Chevalier and the Serbian Order of Saint Sava. While her fine art remains a footnote of neoclassicism, her legacy with giving these soldiers some honor is deeper. Caroline Alexander, in a 2007 article for Smithsonian Magazine, cites a letter in which one a man wrote: “The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had the right to do.” In 2014, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art shared Ladd’s papers online, revealing a blurred 1920 photograph sent by a patient named Charles Victor in which he poses with casual comfort in his mask.
Nevertheless, it’s unclear how successful these static faces were in everyday life. Lubin points out that films like the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney decked out in a Ladd-like mask, used the fear of what lay beneath the mask to great effect. The ugliness of the war injuries and the stigma surrounding them helped fuel the Jazz Age obsession with beauty. Furthermore, the financial support for such customized prosthetic procedures didn’t last. “Unfortunately, when the war ended, convalescents were quickly discharged from military hospitals, and public funding for the continuation of costly facial surgery disappeared,” Lubin writes. “The portrait mask studios were disbanded.”
Jack El-Hai at Wonders & Marvels writes that none of Ladd’s masks are known to survive today, and her “modesty about her war work probably contributed to the quickness with which her accomplishments disappeared from memory.” However, a small cheek prosthesis is included in The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics, an exhibition currently on view at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Just a curve of skin, it’s an object at once beautiful and harrowing, a feat of sculpture haunted by the thought of what it was designed to hide.
Below, a 1918 film shows Ladd at work in the Studio for Portrait Masks:
Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War by David Lubin is out now from Oxford University Press.