Monday, November 15, 2010

Post-WWI Masks

I started my very first Facebook discussion thread here, on Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the mysterious and lethal disfigured WWI veteran taken in by Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) in the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire. We don't see much to Harrow even when he's in a scene, due to his habit of hiding in the shadows and, mainly, behind the mask that shields the world from the true horror of his injured face. If you can handle it, here's how Harrow looks on the show without his mask. And here's with the cover-up (and Jimmy):

Thanks to the Facebook discussion, I've been connect to this fascinating article, "Faces of War" (by Caroline Alexander in Smithsonian magazine 2007) on the origin of these masks in two studios, one in England and one in France (the latter run by an American sculpter, Anna Coleman Ladd), which went to painstaking ends to help make these wounded soldiers as whole as possible. It was the new technologies of the war which gave rise to this need:
The large-caliber guns of artillery warfare with their power to atomize bodies into unrecoverable fragments and the mangling, deadly fallout of shrapnel had made clear, at the war's outset, that mankind's military technology wildly outpaced its medical: "Every fracture in this war is a huge open wound," one American doctor reported, "with a not merely broken but shattered bone at the bottom of it." The very nature of trench warfare, moreover, proved diabolically conducive to facial injuries: "[T]he...soldiers failed to understand the menace of the machine gun," recalled Dr. Fred Albee, an American surgeon working in France. "They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of bullets."

The detail work of these studios were huge and actually took a lot longer than today's plastic surgery to achieve the desired results:

In Ladd's studio, which was credited with better artistic results, a single mask required a month of close attention. Once the patient was wholly healed from both the original injury and the restorative operations, plaster casts were taken of his face, in itself a suffocating ordeal, from which clay or plasticine squeezes were made. "The squeeze, as it stands, is a literal portrait of the patient, with his eyeless socket, his cheek partly gone, the bridge of the nose missing, and also with his good eye and a portion of his good cheek," wrote Ward Muir, a British journalist who had worked as an orderly with Wood. "The shut eye must be opened, so that the other eye, the eye-to-be, can be matched to it. With dexterous strokes the sculptor opens the eye. The squeeze, hitherto representing a face asleep, seems to awaken. The eye looks forth at the world with intelligence."

This plasticine likeness was the basis of all subsequent portraits. The mask itself would be fashioned of galvanized copper one thirty-second of an inch thick—or as a lady visitor to Ladd's studio remarked, "the thinness of a visiting card." Depending upon whether it covered the entire face, or as was often the case, only the upper or lower half, the mask weighed between four and nine ounces and was generally held on by spectacles. The greatest artistic challenge lay in painting the metallic surface the color of skin. After experiments with oil paint, which chipped, Ladd 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. "...Details such as eyebrows, eyelashes and mustaches were made from real hair, or, in Wood's studio, from slivered tinfoil, in the manner of ancient Greek statues.

Here's one of the before-and-after photos accompanying the article:

The success of these masks were huge, per this testimonial:
"Thanks to you, I will have a home," one soldier had written her. "...The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do."

Facial disfigurement is one of those topics that grows in the imagination. So much of how we communicated, how we recognize, how hold our self-image has to do with what's above the neck. Appearance seems to matter almost as much as functionality, as the loss of an eye may be hidden with a patch or prosthetic eyeball, but a severely disfigured face calls attention to itself, especially on first apprehension.

I wonder if this is one of those, "there but for the grace of God" type emotions it evokes. Dear Lord, please spare me in your mercy. In a certain way, aging disfigures us in slow motion. I recently looked at photos of myself from twenty-odd years ago, and wondered where that confident-looking young guy was when I was in my twenties.

As for the show, so far Richard Harrow has only killed someone who richly deserved it. We have yet to see him in actual rage, and perhaps he has none, just a technical approach to assassination. Perhaps the development of his character will lead to his disfigured face somehow becoming mirrored by a disfigured soul.

For now, Harrow is our angel, if an angel of death. We're in sympathy to him, and we like Jimmy more for bringing Harrow aboard, even if for self-serving purposes. Loyalty does count for something, after all.

I leave it to the creators of Boardwalk Empire to make the most of Harrow, and continue to surprise us.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully written...thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

I am fascinated by the early surgical response which was necessitated by the cruel casualities of this new way of fighting. It's interesting if distressing that people with such grave injuries actually were able to survive in the numbers they did.

I do take issue though at your suggestion that normal ageing is disfiguring us in the same way that machine gun fire disfigured these people. With respect, I think that suggestion is somewhat exaggerated.