Portrait painting from ‘Saving Faces meets the 1914FACES2014’ exhibition by Mark Gilbert

Facial injuries and surgical advances exhibition

Soldiers in World War One with serious facial injuries are the catalyst for a research project and a new exhibition. The project focuses on how disfigurement in 1914 to 1918 led to both unprecedented innovations in the surgical field and to permanently changed understandings of the face.

The project is led by the renowned facial surgeon Professor Bernard Devauchelle from the Institut Faire Faces and Professor David Houston Jones from the University of Exeter. It also includes two French partners, the Historial de la Grande Guerre and the Université de Picardie Jules Verne, along with the UK charities Saving Faces and Changing Faces.

The ‘Saving Faces meets the 1914FACES2014’ exhibition showcases the project’s enquiry into the way practices derived from art and sculpture have influenced surgical techniques, and vice versa. During and immediately after World War One artists and sculptors were closely associated with surgeons and the medical establishment. They worked as epithesists (mask makers), making facial prostheses by working from prints and moulding of the patient’s face.

Historically, many facially injured soldiers in major conflicts such as the Franco-Prussian or Napoleonic wars died of their injuries. In contrast, WW1 soldiers’ survival rates and injuries were a new phenomenon. The unprecedented scale of facial injury during WW1 and the radical measures adopted to attempt to mitigate its effects are the starting-point for research into changing understandings of the face from 1914 to the present.

In 1916 the artist Henry Tonks made pastel drawings of casualties of the western front who were being treated at Aldershot and at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup as part of a close collaboration with Harold Gillies, arguably the most important maxillofacial surgeon of the period. Gillies’ pioneering work led to key innovations which shaped facial surgery throughout the twentieth century.

The Saving Faces project reflects a similar partnership between the arts and medicine today. Professor Iain Hutchison (St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London) established the project in1999, and brought the acclaimed portrait painter Mark Gilbert to London to paint portraits of patients before and after facial surgery. The aim was to illustrate what is possible with modern facial surgery in an accessible way, and to show that people with facial disabilities are able to enjoy happy, successful and fulfilled lives.

Professor Houston Jones said:“Hutchison felt that sitting for and seeing their portraits might have a cathartic effect, allowing the patients to come to terms more rapidly with their altered appearance. Our research is part of an enquiry into how facial disfigurement relates to questions of social reintegration and rehabilitation. We are looking in particular at the ways in which contemporary representations of the face influence and are influenced by disfigurement”.

The ‘Saving Faces meets the 1914FACES2014’ exhibition is at Hannah’s at Seale-Hayne, near Newton Abbott. The venue has historical links with WW1, after which it briefly served as a military hospital for soldiers returning from the trenches with shell-shock. The exhibition also features work by Paddy Hartley, artist in residence at the University of Exeter, including a uniform sculpture based on the life story of Plymouth sailor Walter Yeo. Yeo was badly burned at the battle of Jutland in WWI and Paddy’s sculpture refers both to Yeo’s wartime experiences and the pioneering facial surgery he underwent after returning home.

The exhibition is at Hannah’s Seale-Hayne, in the Chapel Gallery, until 29 June, and is curated by University of Exeter exhibition co-ordinator Cristina Burke-Trees 1914FACES2014 is funded by EU INTERREG IVa (fund for regional development).

Date: 18 June 2014

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