What is indefinable is defined

The death mask hardly exits any more. The institution has gone the way of all memorials. It has been made redundant – it has finally been superseded by the photograph, the twentieth century death mask. There seems to be no motivation for making death masks in the latter part of the century. We no longer believe in the worship of fame, genius or inherited traits.

Nor that the face can be read as a guide to the character. Such belief was the basis of physiognomy and phrenology. It is no accident that the death mask has its heyday at the height of belief in physiognomy – the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The devoted taxonomer of facial expressions, Johann Caspar Lavater (1742–1801), author of the immensely influential Essays on Physiognomyhas this to say about death masks:

The dead and the impression of the dead taken in plaster are not less worthy of abservation than living faces. The settled features are much more prominent than on the living and in the sleeping. What life makes fugitive, death arrests. What is indefinable is defined. All is reduced to its proper level. Each trait is in the exact proportion, unless excruciating disease of accident have preceded death.[1]

The immobile face in death provided Lavater with the opportunity to make claims about the subject without contradiction. Throughout the nineteenth century physiognomists and phrenologists followed Lavater’s formulation laying interpretations onto the death masks of faces famous and infamous. The motivation for the taking of death masks was to discover manifestations of difference and the institution brought together the extremities of social regard. Princes, poets, musicians, lunatics and murderers were considered equally as subjects of scrutiny.

In Australia there are at least two archives which attest to this nineteenth century pursuit of scientific knowledge through death-portraiture.  Housed in the Old Melbourne Gaol, now a National Trust property, is a collection of thirty–six casts taken from the heads of men and women executed in the gaol. And in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston are the fragmented remains of the death masks collected by the photographer J. W. Beattie (1859 – 1930),originally part of the displays in his so–called Port Arthur Museum. These casts included death masks of convicts and celebrities such as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and Marcus Clarke.

In the Old Melbourne Gaol the casts are displayed in the old cells alongside descriptions of the crimes and punishments of their subjects; in Launceston the link between the casts and the identities of the subjects has (in many cases) been severed. This imparts a poignant sense of loss to the casts. They have lost their fragile identity. They have also lost their worth – no longer existing as objects worthy of study they remain unregarded as evidence of type or as records of individuality.

The quality they retain is presence. To come ‘face to face’ with the dead is to experience some of the qualities of the person in life. The absolutely precise scale of such casts is but one aspect of their presence; we notice telling details, even sometimes hairs and eyebrow hairs caught in the plaster.

The now discredited nineteenth–century belief that the roots of difference lay in physiology has echoes in writing on death masks in the twentieth century. The major work on the subject, Ernst Benkard’s Das ewige Antlitz, was published in Berlin in 1926 and appeared in London as Undying Faces in 1929. The book is high minded death-culture, rather than an essay in pathology. For Benkard death masks embody the soul:

Death masks command our utmost reverence, for the face is symbolic and perpetuates the final impression of a human spirit whom we once knew, or who made his mark on all men’s minds.[2] 

The major theme of Underlying Faces is the death mask as a persisting residue of organic substance, “erected as a boundary mark” between two states of existence. The moment recorded by the mask is hailed by the death mask enthusiast with an almost religious fervour.

We say that death is a deliverance. And it is true that the last breath is followed almost immediately by an unearthly smile… To die seems thus a fulfilment, a consummation, the most exalted moment in life… As a rule the summons to take a death mask is issued too late and consequently the image obtained is one of life distorted, whereas a few hours earlier it would have been possible to perpetuate the moments of glorious consummation.[3]

The moment of passing from one state to another is here accorded status as consummation. The antithesis of this is the attitude expressed in the work of the Austriam artist Arnulf Rainer. Here consummation is replaced with facelessness.

Death masks are documents of man’s last opportunity for expression… They are images of facial expressions at the moment of passing into immediate facelessness.[4]

The collection of death masks in the cells of Old Melbourne Gaol are the masks of people who have died from hanging. As a group they speak with a strangled voice. Mouths open, eyes sometimes open, but more frequently closed – the faces seem to cry out at the same time as they withdraw from life. Under circumstances of bodily violence there is no possibility for the executed man or woman to put on a mask of gentle passage into death or to compose a face which has little to distinguish it from that of the meditating, withdrawn or sleeping person.

The appeal of the death mask for Lavater was that it offers a countenance over which its owner has no control. Some have seen it as a type of conceit – a death mask is a mask which (finally) reveals all. The life mask of the other hand responds to the life of the sitter. William Blake’s life mask has an uncharacteristic severity caused by the discomfort of the process in which the plaster pulled out some of Blake’s hair. When the English history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1864) attempted to take a life mask of the critic Francis Jeffrey in 1821, having previously taken a serene mask of John Keats, the result was a failure. The subject panicked, breaking the mould off his face and relieving the anxiety of his wife whose misgivings, Haydon said, were caused by the fact that “casting a face has something the air of cutting off a man’s head”.[5]



  1. ^ Johann Caspar Lavater quoted in Walter Sorell, The Other Face; The Mask in the Arts,London, 1973.
  2. ^ undefined
  3. ^ Georg Kolbe in Benkard op cit p 43.
  4. ^ Arnulf Rainer, Artist’s statements in Arnulf Rainer; Tod – Death, Galerie Ulysses, Vienna 1981.
  5. ^ Benjamin Robert Haydon, Diary, 5 May 1821 Portrait Gallery London.