Sunday, August 14, 2005


Smiling For Dummies

A few weeks ago, New Scientist had a fascinating History column on how CPR and Artificial Respiration dummies use a face taken from a famous 19th century death mask of an unknown drowning victim. For those of who can't get into the New Scientist subscription site, there's a article about this mysterious mask at -- of all places -- the Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions:

During the first decades of the 20th century, copies of a young woman's death mask were widely sold in France and Germany and hung on the walls of many homes. Enchanting many by her "smile of sublime satisfaction," (Phillips, 321), the mask was known as the Inconnue de la Seine, and inspired a remarkable number of literary works, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. The story was that around the turn of the last century the body of a young woman was recovered from the Seine near the quai du Louvre (Vautrain, 550).... it was said that her smile was so compelling to a medical assistant at the morgue that he took a death mask, and that the great numbers of plaster casts produced and sold came from this unknown young woman's death mask.

"During the 20s and early 30s, all over the Continent, nearly every student of sensibility has a plaster-cast of her death-mask" (Alvarez, 156)..... In the The Savage God: A Study of Suicide Al Alvarez writes: "I am told that a whole generation of German girls modelled their looks on her," to add in a note: "I owe this information to Hans Hesse of the University of Sussex. He suggested that the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s. He thinks that German actresses like Elisabeth Bergner modeled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo." (Alvarez, 156).

For those wondering what an art student's wall looked like in the 1920s, here it is:

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?