Anna Coleman Ladd
THE SCULPTOR WHO MADE MASKS FOR SOLDIERS DISFIGURED IN WORLD WAR I
by Allison Meier on September 8, 2016
Any enduring romanticism for war was obliterated by the industrialized brutality of World War I, from which legions of soldiers returned disfigured by facial injuries. The rise of Modernism in Europe from this carnage is well-known, but in the United States it had a different impact, encouraging both heightened patriotism and the emergence of symbols like the mask. One artist, Anna Coleman Ladd, turned her neoclassical training into a tool for sculpting new faces for the defaced.
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. Beginning with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, an event used in propaganda to galvanize American interest in the war, Lubin’s research stretches up to 1933, with the emergence of the Third Reich and a new military era. “The first World War was the first fully industrialized war, and an important aspect of that industrialization was the mass production and dissemination of war-related images,” Lubin writes. “They informed and misinformed opposing populations about the need to go to war, the nature of war itself, and the consequences of war.”
And one of those consequences was les gueules cassées, or the “broken faces,” as the hundreds of thousands of disfigured soldiers were called in France. Medicine had improved enough so soldiers could survive previously fatal injuries, yet those wounds were freshly horrific with machine guns and trench warfare that often left the delicate facial tissue exposed. Noses were reduced to holes, jaws broken beyond repair, eyes blinded, and whole physiognomies blurred by ripped flesh. As Harold Gillies, a doctor who treated thousands of facial injuries, said of his ward: “Only the blind keep their spirits up.”
Ladd was among several sculptors who used their skills to fashion masks so soldiers could more easily walk in public without shocking and provoking gawking. The Boston-based artist joined others, like Francis Derwent Wood, who were making prostheses out of copper or tin that could be worn like glasses with spectacle bows over the ears. Through the American Red Cross, Ladd set up her small Studio for Portrait Masks in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1917, its homey interior designed to give comfort and dignity to her patients. Scarred veterans’ transformation began with a suffocating plaster cast process used to capture each of their new imperfections. (read more)