The Great War represented a tragic watershed for the whole European continent not only from a political point of view, but also for the economics, technology, sociology, spirituality and more. The medicine had to reconsider all those conventions it had established in order to ease the pain of all those traumas that its soldiers had signs of both on their body and especially in their mind.
The new weapons were now able to cause awful mutilations, which often found the doctors unprepared to deal with. Up until then, the facial plastic surgery had not been very attentive of the aesthetical aspect of the operations. The mended faces would very often have missing parts and were a living proof of the limited possibility of the surgeons.
Below: a series of aesthetic casts and masks
Below: some parts of reconstructed faces
In a historical time in which the medical possibilities were not able to give back an acceptable look, the disfigurement caused by the war was one of the most tragic scenarios coming back home, a new technique was arising. This new type of mask, made out of metal, was built for the wounded people who did not recognise their face anymore and was meant to fix, at least partially, that psychological damage that was triggered by this new sad condition that the war had imposed on them.
The realisation of these masks, which had the goal of resembling as much as possible the original physiognomy of the soldiers, was certainly not a job for doctors but rather for artists.
At the end of 1917, the American sculptress Anna Coleman Watts Ladd, who had studied arts in Paris and Rome, committed to build masks for the wounded men while she was based in France along with her husband, doctor of the American Red Cross.
Anna opened up in Paris a studio for facial prosthesis for the soldiers needing of help, basing her work on the experience and collaboration with Francis Derwent Wood, British sculptor who had founded in 1916 the “Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department”.
Mrs Coleman, along with four assistants, worked hard to create an environment which was welcoming and upbeat, full of flowers and light.
Before getting to the Anna’s studio, the soldier’s journey had been long painful and full of terrors. From the mudd in the trenches to the basecamp, then to the hospital, where the men used to stay without any assistance in the long hours preceding the operations necessary to give them a face back. The most serious cases would remain in the hospitals because, due to their disfigured faces, they were not prepared to deal with the world as well as the world was not prepared to deal with them.
The long psychological pain endured by those miserable men for being able to get a mask and have a light glimpse of what their old appearance was like, was incredible. The facial prosthesis, after having obtained a chalk cast of the whole face, was realised with extremely thin zinc coated copper and it could either cover the whole face or just a portion of it.
One of the hardest parts was reaching the right skin shade onto the metal surface. Anna used to paint the mask directly on the ex soldier, so that she could get to the closest tone, trying to imitate even the blu-ish coloration of the cheeks. Details such as eyebrows, eyelashes and moustache were realised with real human hair.
The only pictures of these men available today are unfortunately black and white, so we cannot fully observe the chromatic effect that the prosthesis would create.
However, even the biggest of the effort of the artist could not realise anything but a static expression, realistic but, nevertheless, lifeless. This though did not prevent her from gaining important recognitions such as ” Knight (Chevalier) of the Legion of Honour” in France.
At the end of the war, the artist came back to the US with her husband; there she continued to dedicate herself to the sculptures until her death, which occurred in 1939.
Below: video that shows the studio of Mrs Coleman in Paris, where the artist is recorded at work