A free event supported by the Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University, and Wellcome Trust.
One of the most poignant innovations of the First World War was the production of portrait masks for severely disfigured servicemen: the surgical ‘failures’. In London and Paris, professional sculptors were responsible for the provision of these delicate masks: their results are recorded in the photographs of British home front photographer Horace Nicholls and in a silent film of Anna Coleman Ladd at work in her American Red Cross studio in Paris. Both sources docu-ment the artistry of prosthetic repair, and Nicholls’ images dramatize the psy-chological impact of facial mutilation – regarded by many to be the most dehu-manizing of injuries. Paradoxically, though, the juxtaposition of human face and portrait mask disturbs the equation of identity and appearance on which tradi-tional portraiture depends. Given the professed ‘death of the portrait,’ one might expect a different treatment of disfigurement today; a loosening of the convic-tion that appearance and identity are relatively fixed. Images from recent con-flicts do not bear this out, however, and the representation of disfigured veter-ans (indeed, disfigurement and disability of any sort) in the press and popular culture remains convention-bound. An exception is the work of American pho-tographer Nina Berman, whose portraits of veterans challenge the usual narra-tives of sacrifice, courage and redemption – including the fantasy of repair.
Suzannah Biernoff is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History of Art at Birk-beck, University of London. Her recent writing pursues the themes of corporeal history and visual anxiety in the context of First World War Britain.
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