Get the Face Back

Sometimes art meets life in a much deeper way.
Some artists have done great things but have not received the right contribution during the decades.One of the was the american sculptress Anna Coleman Ladd. Anna was inspired to offer her talent as an artist to help world war I soldiers in France after reading an article about Francis Derwent Wood and his “Tin Noses Shop” in England (where Wood was creating masks for disfigured soldiers). Anna decided to offer her experience as a portrait painter for the red cross service. So in november 1917 opens her small studio for portrait in the Latin Quartier of Paris administred by the American Red Cross.
Anna decided to make the study particularly welcoming, with a comfortable atmosphere and homey interior design, to give dignity and respect to her patients.”

It was a very delicate matter, the patients were young veterans of war, nicknamed les gueules cassées, or the ‘broken faces’. In most cases their conditions were dramatic, lost noses, destroyed jaws, blind eyes and completely lost physiognomy made their life so misery. Their ireturn in social life and family was perhaps the greatest psychological problem.
In the studio work Anna was helped by Diana Blair (form the Harvard Medical unit) and the sculptors Jane Pouplet, Robert Vlerick and Louise Brent. The working group developed a very effective and interesting technical procedure to be examined today. They used the best materials and the elementary technologies of those years to get the best result.
First of all a plaster cast was taken from the soldier’s face, making plastrer mold using natural oil as a release agent.

Plaster mask of injuried faces and corresponding face cast with modeled parts, 1918. (library of congress)

Then on the plaster cast of disfigured face, the sculptors modeled the parts of the face to be rebuilt. The modeling was very accurate to achieve the perfect resemblance with the conditions before the injury. Old photos (very few sometimes only one) provided by the patient and direct impressions of the patient and family members were the only guide to doing the reconstruction work. Modeling and retouching were considered completed only when the patient recognized himself in the new appearance with the mask. Subsequently a new plaster mold was made on the new modeled portion of loss parts and from this mold a gutta-percha cast model was obtained. Gutta-percha was a natural rubber very similar to caucciu used also in a variety of surgical devices. The rubber model of the mask was immersed in a galvanic copper bath.

Before and after with a mask sculpted by anna colemnan ladd, 1918. (archive book images/flickr)

For a physical-.chemical process solicited by the electric current the metal molecules were fixed on the previously treated rubber model, lasting a period of about two days, reaching one thirty-second of an inch thick.
At the end of the process, on the model remained a sufficiently thin homogeneous layer of copper like the pefrect mask replica with all details and volumes. The rubber being soft could be easily detached leaving only the copper mask perfectly reproduced.
The masks, more or less large, were tested more and more times on patients asking them to assume natural poses and usual movements like smoking a cigarette. The masks were secured to the face by loops on the ears, glasses or invisible laces in some cases fashionable mustache was added.
In Ladd’s studio, which was credited with better artistic results, a single mask required a month of close attention.

The greatest artistic challenge lay in painting the metallic surface the color of skin. After experiments with oil paint, which chipped, Anna 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.

Frame taken from the reel of the original silent film of 1918, showing Anna Coleman Ladd working on a mask

By the end of 1919, Ladd’s studio had produced 185 masks. The average cost of the masks was only $18 due, in large part, to the fact that Anna’s services were donated. When the war ended, the Red Cross couldn’t fund her studio anymore, so the studios closed. Ladd returned to Boston, where she resumed sculpting portrait busts and art for fountains.
It seems that none of the masks created by Anna and her collaborators are known to survive today, perhaps because in the end they accompanied the owners in their burial, just to preserve the dignity so sought when in life.
The studio was described by an american visitor as “a large bright studio” on upper floors, reached by way of an “attractive courtyard overgrown with ivy and peopled with statues.” Ladd and her four assistants had made a determined effort to create a cheery, welcoming space for her patients; the rooms were filled with flowers, the walls hung with “posters, French and American flags” and rows of plaster casts of masks in progress.

One of the most interesting aspects of the work done by Anna is the one belonging to the human side, her helping offer was directed to people destined to be refused and in perennial frustration. Young men no longer accepted because of their appearance. Her will was to recover their state of mind, their serenity, even before the appearance.
In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, Caroline Alexander cites a letter in which one of the men curated by Anna wrote: ‘the woman I love no longer finds me repiulsive, as she had the right to do’. These words suggest the psychological condition in which these men lived.

Frame taken from the reel of the original silent film of 1918, showing a collegue sculptress with the mold maker

Anna Coleman Ladd left Paris after the armistice, in early 1919. Back in America, Ladd was extensively interviewed about her war work.
In 1932, the French Government made Anna Coleman Ladd a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, in recognition of the work she’d done.
She continued to sculpt, producing bronzes that differed remarkably little in style from her prewar pieces; her war memorials inevitably depict granite-jawed warriors with perfect—one is tempted to say mask-like—features. She died at age 60 in Santa Barbara in 1939.
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.
Very impressive is a short film of that time that shows Anna in her studio while working, with collegue sculptors and a mold maker, on masks for soldiers who are testing masks and posing for the camera.

News on Feb 16 1919

Two soldiers with their prosthetics show a return to normal daily life

Facial prostheses made by Anna Coleman Ladd