Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Plastic Surgery and the Great War

World War I seems like only yesterday this year:
Steven Spielberg's "War Horse", based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, sweeps into the cineplex this month. The stage phenomenon of the same name, brilliantly realized by Handspring Puppet Company, continues on Broadway.
Susan Orleans tells the true life and legend of Rin Tin Tin, Dog Star of stage and screen, born on a World War I battlefield, delivered from it by a doughboy. Orleans writes that animals were deployed to the front in staggering numbers — some sixteen million horses, dogs, oxen, camels, donkeys, mules and pigeons went to the front—including “8 million horses that were killed… or sold to French butchers at the end.” 
War has come to the public television hit Downton Abbey in its second season. And HBO's Boardwalk Empire is haunted by characters like Richard Harrow, decimated by the unexpected savagery of that conflict.

The Great War was a wanton slaughter of innocence and innocents, none more so than the boys who fought from a 6-foot ditch scarred into scorched earth. It was, writes William Boyd in a recent editorial, “a conflict between 19th-century armies equipped with 20th-century which millions of soldiers on both sides slogged through...a 500-mile line of meet their deaths in withering blasts of machine-gun fire and artillery...."
Eager boy soldiers faced “a battlefield dominated by tanks, machine guns, howitzers, aircraft and poisonous gas...," exposed from the neck up.

In fact, the signature wound of the war was facial disfigurement. Unimaginable, mutilating wounds, once mercifully unsurvivable. And in the vestigial Victorian aesthetic of the times, unspeakably hideous. In her article, “The Rhetoric of Disfigurement,” social historian Suzannah Biernoff writes that an estimated 60,500 British soldiers suffered head or eye injuries... at the specialist hospital for facial injuries...over 11,000 operations were performed on some 5,000 servicemen between 1917 and 1925. "Many soldiers were shot in the face simply because they had no experience of trench warfare." One contemporary surgeon wrote, "They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of machine-gun bullets....”

One who had seen the carnage first hand was Harold Gillies, a battlefield medic who returned to Britain in 1916 to devote his life to finding a way to restore to these patients the “perceived loss of humanity.” Gillies would become known as the “father of modern plastic surgery". But in that first year—after the Battle of the Somme, when he expected 200 casualties and got 2,000—even the physician felt "fear, disgust and shame surrounding facial disfigurement, both for the men who suffered these injuries, and for those...who came into contact with them....”

Subsequent blogs will explore how Dr. Gillies, and the post-war world with him, came to terms with the bodily and spiritual carnage in the wake of The Great War, what it has meant to the science of facial reconstruction, and how it has shaped 21st century concepts of beauty and worth.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Martin Luther King: Stone Faced

This week’s observance of Martin Luther King Day is the first to be overseen by the man himself. That is to say, by a “Stone of Hope,” the nation’s official memorial to the great man, towering 30-foot over the Tidal Basin on the National Mall.
George Tames/The New York Times
Named for a line in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, the 46-ton granite face of the statue was carved by Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin, and for all its power to stir both memory and emotion, it has stirred controversy from the very beginning. Critics have found the face too steely, squinty, Chinese; the expression too stern, or lacking the “soft eyes” and “open face that conveys the blessed assurance of a man who walks by faith.” Charles Krauthammer wrote that this “flat, rigid, socialist realist King does not do justice to the supremely nuanced, creative, humane soul of its subject.”

Sculptor Lei at work on Stone of Hope
Bob Fitch/Courtesy Ed Jackson
Over years of research, 53-year-old sculptor Lei covered the walls of his studio with pictures of Martin Luther King, and researched hundreds of hours of King’s speeches and letters. Finally choosing as the model for his sculpture a famous 1966 photograph of King standing at his desk with arms folded, Lei's interpretation was to be of Martin Luther King, Jr., "a great man who was also an ordinary man". Still, he acquiesced repeatedly to requests to soften the facial expression in his likeness of Dr. King. In the end, King's children all chose this, the final of four different facial expressions that Lei produced, as looking most like their father. And a majority of viewers will likely find with Krauthammer that withal, “you cannot but be deeply moved.... There is no denying the power of this memorial.”

Ultimately, of course, any quest for a single facial expression to  capture the whole of the human presence is doomed from the outset, and is the bane of the monumenaltist’s mission (think Mt. Rushmore). For the face, any face, is recognized most profoundly, and identified best by the way it moves—and it is always in motion.

In What the Face Reveals, for example, Paul Ekman, et al, identify literally hundreds of specific facial expressions and “microexpressions” that occur in direct relation to muscular contractions. Using the renowned technical classification system known as the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) Ekman categorizes facial behaviors based on the muscles that produce them. More on this in a future post.

For now though, this is my bid to cut a little slack to sculptor Lei Yixin, whose monumental King was never intended to supplant the magnificent face of the man, in all of its ordinary and splendid expressiveness.