As Halloween approaches, it offers a chance to delve into the occult, phantasmagoric, otherworldly, and haunted aspects of our world. In a series of posts, we’re exploring art history that offers a portal to a darker side of culture.
One of the most popular muses of early-20th-century Paris was a drowned woman. The face of “L’Inconnue de la Seine” (“The Unknown Woman of the Seine”) was a fashionable fixture of salons and studios, her enigmatic expression of a slight smile and closed eyes haunted by stories of her suicide. It was said the death mask, replicated in these endless copies, was made at the Paris morgue between 1898 and 1900, by a pathologist struck by the beauty of this corpse pulled from the Seine river.
You may have seen her face yourself, even kissed those lips. For what makes the story of the Inconnue even stranger is her 1950s use as the model for a CPR training device. Resusci Anne is still produced by Laerdal Medical, which includes the tale of her Seine suicide on its website, adding she’s now “a symbol of life to the millions of people throughout the world who have learned the lifegiving technique of modern resuscitation, and to those whose lives she has helped save from unnecessary death.”
But whether she was an anonymous drowned woman at all remains a mystery. Radiolab has an excellent 2011 podcast in which they revisit Norwegian toy maker Asmund Laerdal’s choice to use her face, someone who appears “comfortably dead,” on the CPR model, where her lips are parted, awaiting life-saving breath. The endurance of her visage, which Albert Camus compared to the Mona Lisa, combines something of a lingering 19th-century Romanticism about death, the objectification of the female corpse, and a fascination with her inscrutable expression.
And if you’ve seen, or can imagine, a drowned person, she looks nothing like one, no bloating or distortion to her skin. Yet whether or not she is actually a modern Ophelia seems unimportant to her symbolism. Vladimir Nabokov wrote a whole 1934 poem titled “L’Inconnue de la Seine” that ponders why she may have committed suicide:
Urging on this life’s denouement,
loving nothing upon this earth,
I keep staring at the white mask
of your lifeless face.
The Inconnue makes numerous other appearances in literature and art, sometimes named, sometimes not. Rainer Maria Rilke in his 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge has his narrator walk by a store displaying the mask each day: “The face of the young drowned woman, which they took a cast of in the morgue, because it was beautiful, because it smiled, because it smiled so deceptively, as if it knew.”
Albert Rudomine photographed her as “La Vierge inconnue du canal de l’Ourcq” in 1927, merging her identity with the Virgin Mary. Willy Otto Zielke posed her in a fractured profile for a 1934 silver print. Auguste Rodin may have embedded her in the marble of his 1902 “Dernière Vision.” Man Ray made a photomontage of her, superimposing open eyes, for the cover of Marie Nimier’s 1944 La Nouvelle Pornographie. Ray also featured her face in a 1960 plaster assemblage, positioned at the center of a triangle, as if in her own cosmic realm of uncertainty.
Anne-Gaëlle Saliot’s 2015 book The Drowned Muse, a thorough look at the Inconnue’s influence on culture, notes that it is “through her very anonymity that the Inconnue maintains her fame”:
The Inconnue is like one of those images that appear to defy attempts at interpretation: it is at once familiar and eerie, dated and ageless; it has an air of déjà vu, while remaining mysteriously opaque. It is characterized by a visual intensity, a simultaneous radiance and concealment.
Even in recent culture, her presence endures, like a 1990 assemblage by Daniel Spoerri, and in the 2002 exhibition Le Dernier Portrait at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Jeremy Grange at BBC News reported in 2013 that the mask of the Inconnue was still the best seller at the Parisian suburb-based Lorenzi cast workshop, which sells the death mask, with the keywords “Masque, noyée, Seine” (“Mask, drowned, Seine”). Whether all these attachments are true, doesn’t seem to matter. She can be anyone, with her expression always a question rather than an answer.