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Thursday, September 27, 2007
The death mask lives!
"This is a story about a lethal injection, a body in the back of a hired car, a cabin in the wilds of Texas, a gallery of death masks, the theme song of the TV series The Sopranos, the son of the mastermind of the great train robbery and an artist baroness from Chiswick who wears a bra made out of latex pigs' heads." So begins a fascinating report in the Guardian today about Carrie "The Baronness" Reichardt, a London-based ceramicist, rock musician, and death penalty opponent, and Nick Reynolds, a London-based sculptor and rock musician. Last month, Reichardt and Reynolds traveled to Texas, where Reichardt documented the death-by-lethal injection of convicted killer John Joe "Ash" Amador; a few hours later, Reynolds created Amador's death mask.
Bet you didn't know that Boston used to be world-famous for the "museum quality" of its death mask reproductions. Back when plaster death and life masks of famous individuals (Lincoln, Napoleon, Audubon, Burke, Coleridge, Robespierre, Goethe, Franklin, Cromwell, Swift) were must-have items for American men and women of culture, P.P. Caproni & Brother Plastic Arts -- located in three connected buildings on Washington and Newcomb Streets in Roxbury -- was the place to visit.
From 1892 until shortly before his death in 1928, Pietro Paulo Caproni manufactured and retailed plaster reproductions of famous classical and contemporary statuary, not to mention reproductions of famous death and life masks. Before commercial photography made Caproni's business obsolete, museums, art schools, and universities around the world taught the history of art and antiquities via such reproductions; Harvard, Symphony Hall, and the Loews theaters all proudly displayed Caproni casts. View a P.P. Caproni catalog here.
Why do I know so much about Caproni life and death masks? Because the most significant object I possess is a P.P. Caproni & Bro. cast of Baudelaire's death mask -- at least, I used to believe it was Baudelaire's death mask; now I'm convinced that it's actually a life mask of Keats. (I explain the mix-up, and the mask's significance, in my new book, "Taking Things Seriously.") Here's my Baudelaire/Keats mask:
And here's Keats's life mask, by Benjamin Robert Haydon, from the original in National Portrait Gallery, London.
You be the judge.