Macabre Masks

The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.

Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.

In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.

Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.

If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)

During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.

Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).

Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.

The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.

The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.

Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.

The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.

But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.

The Carney Landis Experiment

Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.

One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!

In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.

To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.

At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.

He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.

He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.

The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.

Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.

Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 [5], 447-509) came to these conclusions:

1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.

Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.

After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.

There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.

The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.

On facial expressions related to emotions, see also my former post on Guillaume Duchenne (sorry, Italian language only).

Henry Tonks and the Faceless Boys

I have wrote in the past about how plastic surgery was originally born during the Great War as reconstructive surgery. If a soldier missing an arm or a leg was indeed a familiar figure, the introduction of new weapons during the world conflict led to the appearance of a kind of wounds precedently almost unheard of: the gueules cassées, “disfigured faces”.
Helmets were able to protect the head from granade splinters, but not the face; therefore field hospitals began to receive an unimaginable number of soldier whose faces had been blown away in large portions by the explosions.
It was an injury rarely discussed in the press, where the more iconic and patriotic image of the veteran amputee was considered more suitable, but the numbers speak for themselves: within English troops alone, 41.000 amputations were carried out, as opposed to the 60.500 men who suffered head or eye injury.
One had a higher probability of finding himself without a face rather than without legs.

Practically on every front, experimental procedures were adopted to reconstruct faces destroyed by shrapnel or burned by mustard gas.
In January 1916, at the military hospital in Aldershot, England, pioneer surgeon Harold Gillies encountered doctor Henry Tonks, who was serving as a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Henry Tonks was a doctor and an artist: besides being part of the Royal College of Surgeons, he also taught drawing and anatomy at the Slade Academy.

Soldiers were sent back from the front in desperate conditions, and  Tonks had the feeling that he could not handle, from a professional and humane point of view, such a catastrophe. As he himself confessed in a letter: “I have decided that I am not any use as a doctor“. And in another letter he recounted: “the wounds are horrible, and I for one will be against wars in the future, you have no right to ask men to endure such suffering. It would not matter if the wounds did well but they are practically all septic“.
And as the war progressed, things did not improve. After the Somme offensive, on July the 1st 1916, more than 2.000 patients flooded the hospital: “men without half their faces; men burned and maimed to the condition of animal“.

Thus, when Gillies asked Tonks to document his reconstructive operations by portraying the patients’ faces before and after surgery, Tonks happily accepted, as he was certainly more at ease in the artistic dimension.
To draw portraits could seem redundant, as photographs of the disfigured soldiers were already being taken, but both doctors were convinced that the cold-hearted objectiveness of film could be misleading in respect to the tactile and expressive qualities of a painting.

Thanks to his collaboration with Gillies, Henry Tonks produced a seried of facial wound portraits which still today stands unsurpassed for its emotional impact, scientific interest and subtlety of representation.
Sure, these pastel portraits had first of all a didactic intent, and the author himself did not wish them to be seen by the general public. And yet these works show a complexity that transcends their function of medical illustrations.

To understand how Tonks worked on his subjects, we have an extraordinary fortune: in some cases, the archives still have both his pastel portraits and the medical photographs. We can therefore watch, side by side, two images of the same patient, one recorded on film and the other one composed by the charcoal and colors of the artist.

Comparing Tonks’ drawings with the photographic shots, what emerges is the abstraction operated by the artist, which is meant to remove any hint at the patient’s suffering or interiority. These are accurate works, detached and at the same time compassionate, focusing mainly on the open wound, depicted with an almost “tactile” precision through the stratification of color (a consequence of the artist’s surgical training).
And yet the uncanny quality of these drawings lies in their absolutely modern ambiguity.
What could by all means be a portrait of a normal male face — ordinary traits, well-groomed hair, a knotted tie — becomes somehow “sabotaged” by the presence of the wound. It is as if our gaze, wondering over the painting’s surface, could register all these common details, just to be short-circuited the moment it meets the scandal of the injury. An inconceivable monstrosity, which appears impossible to integrate with the rest of the image.
It is then inevitable for us to fall back to the eyes of the portrayed subject, to his gaze fixed upon us, and to wonder about its impenetrable meaning.

Another peculiarity is the use of pastel, a medium considered “feminine” in respect to more virile, lively oil color or tempera; a choice that in this case allows for the lacerations of the flesh to be rendered in a softer and more tolerable way. What’s more, thanks to the lighter tone of these colors, Tonks provides his subjects with a delicate beauty and tenderness that no photograph could have ever captured.
These portraits seem as vulnerable as the mutilated youth they represent.

Suzannah Biernoff, in her wonderful essay Flesh Poems: Henry Tonks and the Art of Surgery (from which I stole most of the information for this post — you can read it in Visual Culture in Britain, n. 11, 2010) defines Henry Tonks’ works as “anti-portraits, in the sense that they stage the fragility and mutability of subjectivity rather than consolidating the self portrayed“.

Henry Tonks’ studies are set apart from classic medical illustration by virtue of this research of a particular beauty. They do not recoil from the horror they intend to portray, but cover it with a veil of elusive sensuality, in which a face becomes the sign of the uncertainty of existence, and a symbol of the cruelty Man inflicts upon himself.