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. Death masks create new objects out of our bodies in decay. They exist in history—in Victorian mourning culture or the power structures of Renaissance Italy, for example—but also as physical forms, as contradictions of flesh and plaster.
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. To ask why or how a death mask works is to probe a maelstrom that makes mock of sure footing. But what if the thing that makes a death mask tick is not the resemblance to someone long-dead, but rather the visual noise, static, and imperfections that halt that resemblance in its tracks?
There is a lengthy history of taking impressions from the face of a corpse. One might have been made for Alexander the Great. Certain keen-eyed academics have argued that the indigenous peoples of Arkansas cast pots from the heads of their dead relatives. But they really came to the fore in the nineteenth century, when doctors and traveling specialists did brisk business taking plaster casts from celebrities and criminals. They adorned family mantels. Phrenologists sought them out as teaching tools, and taught students to read worlds into the bumps and grooves of cheekbones and foreheads. Artists incorporated death masks into commemorative busts, such as that made of Napoleon I by François Carlo Antommarchi.