June 5, 2014

The 'weird liveliness" of the death mask

In the Atlantic, Impressions from the Face of a Corpse by Luke Fidler The death mask’s uncanny capacity for portraiture, an Object Lesson

When the curators of Stanford University’s art museum asked Darren Waterston to make art from their collection, he fixed on the bone-white death mask of Leland Stanford Jr. Along with their millions, the Stanfords had left their faces to the university. Taken with the death mask, Waterston made it the subject of his 2009 exhibition Splendid Grief. His paintings, sculptures, and wallpaper designs responded as much to the mask’s aesthetic properties as its crystallization of grief.

The death mask is something between a creepy portrait and a contact relic. I shiver each time I brush one, for no matter my scholarly remove I can’t help but feel the presence of the dead under my fingertips. For inert matter, especially matter that speaks so stridently of death, the death mask trades on a weird liveliness. It’s an uncanny object, one that spurs us to reconsider the matter of portraiture and commemoration…..

The death mask became popular thanks to the assumption that it was a portrait par excellence. … Others, often relatives of the deceased, railed against death masks as grotesque perversions of portraiture. ….

Beethoven’s death mask, taken two days after he died, shows the saw marks where the composer’s ear bones were removed. His left ear later wound up in a curiosity cabinet.

 Deathmask-BeethovenBeethoven's death mask
Posted by Jill Fallon at June 5, 2014 11:26 AM | Permalink