Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Death/Life Mask

Long ago, death masks were a common way to preserve the faces of the deceased. Death masks were made from the faces of royalty and nobility, notable poets and philosophers – Henry VIII, Voltaire, Dante, and so on.

It's highly ironic to me that the face of the CPR dummy was based on a death mask – the death mask of a young woman found drowned in the Seine River in the 1880s. She was called L'inconnue de la Seine – the unknown woman of the Seine.

L'inconnue de la Seine

One of the myths I've come across is that she threw herself into the river after an affair with a married man was uncovered. Nobody really has proof of the real story though.

When she was found, her body was laid out in the street for identification purposes (common practice at the time). She was considered so beautiful that a pathologist at the morgue made a plaster cast of her face, though she was not of nobility or royalty, or anyone famous.

Her death mask — with its "beguiling," "enigmatic" little smile — was beautiful enough to be cast and recast and eventually sold as a fashionable fixture in European homes.

Her mask made it to the living room where a Norweigan toymaker by the name of Asmund Laerdal grew up. This toymaker (whose own son had nearly drowned in the river as a little boy) had been commissioned by an Austrian doctor to create a dummy for people to learn artificial resuscitation. Laerdal happened to look up and see it on display in his parents' living room, and thought it perfect for the face of the now ubiquitous first aid mannequin, CPR Annie.