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.

The misfortunes of Willie Dee

As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers.

(A. Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat, 1871)

In the hypotetical Museum of Failure I proposed some time ago, the infamous destroyer USS William D. Porter (DD-579) would hold a place of honor.
The account of its war exploits is so tragicomic that it sounds like it’s scripted, but even if some anecdotes are probably no more than legends, the reputation the ship earned in its two years of service was sadly deserved.

The career of “Willie Dee“, as the Porter was nicknamed, started off with an exceptional task.
Soon after its launch, the ship was assigned to a top-secret, crucial mission: escorting Franklin Delano Roosevelt across the Atlantic ocean — infested by nazi submarines — to North Africa, where the President was to meet Stalin and Churchill for the first time. The summit of the Three Greats would later become known as the Tehran Conference, and together with the following meetings (the most famous one held in Yalta) contributed to change the European post-war layout.
Yet, on account of Willie Dee, the meeting almost failed to happen.

Destroyers are agile and fast ships, specifically designed to shield and protect bigger vessels. On November 12, 1943, the Porter was ordered to join the rest of the fleet escorting USS Iowa, a 14,000-tons battleship on which the President had already boarded, together with the Secretary of State and the executive top brass.

Willie Dee‘s crew at the time consisted of 125 sailors, under Captain Wilfred Walter’s command. But in times of war the Army needed a vast number of soldiers, and therefore enlisted boys who were still in high school, or had only worked in a family farm. A huge part of military accidents was caused by inexperienced rookies, who has had no proper training and were learning from their own mistakes, directly in the field. Nearly all of Willie Dee‘s crew had never boarded a ship before (including the 16 officials, of which only 4 had formerly been at sea), and this top-secret-mission baptism by fire surely increased the crew’s psychological pressure.

Anyway, right from the start Willie Dee made its debut under a bad sign. By forgetting to weigh anchor.
As Captain Walter was maneuvering to exit the Norfolk harbor, a terrible metal noise was heard. Looking out, the crew saw that the anchor had not been completely raised and, still hanging on the ship’s side, had tore out the railings of a nearby sister ship, destroying a life raft and ripping up other pieces of equipment. The Willie Dee had suffered just some scratches and, being already late, Captain Walter could only offer some quick apologies before setting sail towards the Iowa, leaving it to port authorities to fix the mess.
But it wasn’t over. During the next 48 hours, the Willie Dee was going to fall into a maelstrom of shameful incompetence.

After less than a day, just as the Iowa and the other ships were entering a zone notoriously infested by German U-boats, a heavy explosion shook the waters. All units, convinced they had fallen under attack, frantically began diversion maneuvers, as radar technicians in high alert scanned the ocean floor in search for enemy submarines.
Until the Iowa received an embarassed message from Captain Walter: the detonation had been caused by one of their depth charges, accidentally dropped into the water because the safe had not been correctly positioned. Luckily the explosion had not injured the ship.
As if accidentally dropping a bomb was not enough, things got even more desperate in the following hours. Soon after that a freak wave washed one of the sailors overboard, who was never found. Not one hour after that tragedy, the Willie Dee‘s boiler room suffered a mechanical failure and lost power, leaving the destroyer plodding along in a backward position behind the rest of the convoy.

At this point, aboard the Iowa the anxiety for Willie Dee‘s blunders was tangible. Under the scrutiny of all these high personalities, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, personally took the radio microphone to reprimand Captain Walter. The skipper, realizing that the opportunities of a high-profile mission were quickly turning into a catastrophe, humbly vowed to “improve the ship’s performance“. And in a sense he kept his word, by causing the ultimate disaster.

Even proceeding at full speed, it would have taken more than a week for the fleet to reach destination. It was therefore of crucial importance to carry out war drills, so that the (evidently inexperienced) crews could prepare for a potential surprise attack.
On November 14, east of Bermuda, the Iowa Captain decided to show Roosevelt and the other passengers how his ship was able to defend itself against an air attack. Some weather balloons were released as targets, as the President and other officials were invited to seat on the deck to enjoy the show of cannons taking them down one by one.
Captain Walter and his crew stood watching from 6,000 yards away, growing eager to participate in the drill and to redeem their ship’s name. When Iowa missed some balloons, which drifted into Willie Dee‘s fire range, Walter ordered his men to shoot them down. At the same time, he commanded a torpedo drill.

Belowdecks two members of the crew, Lawton Dawson and Tony Fazio, made sure the primers were removed from the torpedos — otherwise they would have actually launched — and gave the OK signal to the deck. The bridge commander ordered fire, and the first “fake” torpedo was activated. Then the second, “fire!“. And the third.
At that point, the bridge commander heard the last sound he’d wanted to hear. The unmistakable hiss of a real torpedo trailing away.
To fully understand the horror the official must have felt in that moment, we must remember one detail. Usually in a drill one of the nearby ships was chosen as a practice target. The closest target was the Iowa.

The Porter had just fired a torpedo towards the President of the United States.

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Aboard the Willie Dee, hell broke loose. One lieutenant ran up to Captain Walter, and asked him if he had given permission to fire a torpedo. His answer was certainly not a historic war dictum:  “Hell, No, I, I, aaa, iiiiii — WHAT?!“.
Only a couple of minutes were left before the torpedo hit Iowa‘s side, sinking it together with America’s most important personalities.
Walter immediately ordered to raise the alarm, but the strictest radio silence had been commanded to avoid the risk of interception, as the fleet sailed in a dangerous zone. So the signalman decided to use a flashing light instead.
But, falling prey to a justifiable panic, the young sailor who had to warn Iowa of the fatal mistake got quite confused. The mothership began receiving puzzling, uncomprehensible messages: “A torpedo is moving away from Iowa“, and shortly after “Our ship is going in reverse at full speed“.
Time was running out, and realizing that Morse code was not a viable option, Walter decided to break radio silence. “Lion, Lion, come right!” “Identify and say again. Where is submarine?” “Torpedo in the water! Lion, come right! Emergency! Come right, Lion! Come right!
At that point the torpedo had already been spotted from the Iowa. The ship made an emergency manoeuvre, increasing speed and turning right, as all cannons shot towards the incoming torpedo. President Roosevelt asked his Secret Service bodyguard to move his wheelchair to the railing, so he could better see the missile. According to the story, the bodyguard even took out his gun to shoot the torpedo, as if his bullets could stop its course.
Meanwhile, over the Willie Dee a ghastly silence had fallen, as everyone stood frozen, holding their breath and waiting for the explosion.

Four minutes after being fired, the missile exploded in water, not far from Iowa, providentially without damaging it. The President later wrote in his diary: “On Monday last a gun drill. Porter fired a torpedo at us by mistake. We saw it — missed it by 1,000 feet“.

With the best will in the world, such an accident could not be overlooked — also because at that point there was a strong suspicion that the Willie Dee crew might have been infiltrated, and that the claimed clumsy error was in fact an actual assassination plot. So the Iowa ordered the Porter out of the convoy and sent it back to a US base in Bermuda; Walter and his crew shamefully made a u-turn and, once they entered the harbor, were greeted by fully armed Marines who placed them all under arrest. Days of interrogations and investigations followed, and Dawson, the 22-tear-old sailor who forgot to remove the primer from the torpedo, was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour. When he heard of the sentence, Roosevelt himself intervened to pardon the poor boy.

The rest of the convoy in the meantime reached Africa unharmed, and Roosevelt (despite another, but this time real, attempted assassination) went on to sign with Churchill and Stalin those deals which, once the war was over, would radically change Europe.
The Willie Dee was sent off Alaskan shores, where it could not cause much trouble, and in time it became some sort of a sailor’s myth. Other unverified rumors began circulating around the “black sheep” of the US Navy, such as one about a drunk sailor who one night allegedly shot a 5-inch shell towards a military base on the coast, destroying a commander’s front yard. Humorous, exaggerated legends that made it a perfect scapegoat, the farcical anti-heroine into which the anxiety of failure could be sublimated.
The resonance of Willie Dee’s infamous deeds preceded it in every harbor, where invariably the ship was saluted by radioing the ironic greeting “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!“.

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The ship eventually sank during the Battle of Okinawa — ingloriously taken down by an already-crashed plane which exploded under its hull.
On that day, more than a seaman probably heaved a sigh of relief. The unluckiest ship in American history was finally resting at the bottom of the ocean.

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(Thanks, Andrea!)

Two underwater graveyards

Along the cove named Mallows Bay, the Potomac River flows placid and undisturbed. It’s been doing that for more than two million years, you’ll have to forgive if the river doesn’t seem much impressed.
Its fresh and rich waters glide along the banks, caressing the hulls of hundreds of submerged ships. Yes, because in this underwater graveyard at least 230 sunken ships lay on the bottom of the river — a surreal tribute, here in Maryland, 30 miles south of Washington DC, a memento of a war among “featherless bipeds”, and of a military strategy that proved disastrous.

On April the 2nd, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called Americans to arms against imperial Germany. This meant carrying dietary, human and military resources across the Atlantic Ocean, which was infested by German submarines. And supporting an army overseas meant to build the most majestic fleet in the history of mankind. In february 1917, engineer Frederic Eustis proposed an apparently irreproachable plan to lower costs and solve the problem: the construction of wooden ships, cheaper and faster to assemble than iron ships; a fleet so vast as to outnumber the inevitable losses due to submarines, thus able to bring food and weapons to European shores.
But, amidst beaurocratic and engineering delays, the project ironically did not hold water right from the start. Deadlines were not met, and in October 1918 only 134 wooden ships were completed; 263 were half-finished. When Germany surrendered on November 11th, not a single one of these ships had left port.

A legal battle to assert responsibilities ensued, as only 98 of the 731 commissioned ship had been delivered; and even these showed a weak and badly built structure, proving too small and costly to carry long-distance cargo. The maintenance costs for this fleet soon became excessive, and it was decided to cut out the entire operation, sinking the ships where they stood, one by one.

Today Mallows Bay harbours hundreds of fallen ships, which in time turned into a sort of natural reef, where a florid ecosystem thrives. As they were made of wood, these ships are by now part of the river’s habitat, and host algae and microorganisms that will in time erase this wartime folly, by turning it into a part of Potomac itself.
Mallows Bay is the largest ship graveyard in Western Hemisphere. As for the Eastern one, we should look for Truk (or Chuuk) Lagoon in Micronesia.

Here, during the course of another bloody war, WWII, hundreds of airplanes and other Japanese outposts were taken down during the so-called Hailstone operation.

On February 17, 1944, hell broke loose over this peaceful tropical lagoon, when US airforce sunk 50 Japanese ships and aorund 250 airplanes. At least 400 Japanese soldiers met their end here. Most of the fleet still remains in the place where it went down, under the enemy fire.

Foating on the surface of the lagoon’s clear waters, it is still possible to see the impressive structures of these wrecks; and several daredevils dive to explore the eerie panorama, where plane carcasses and battleship keels cover the ocean floor.

Rusted and sharp metal sheets, fluctuating cables and oil spills make the dive extremely dangerous. Yet this graveyard, the largest of its kind in the world, seems to offer an experience that is worth the risk. Among the bended metal of a by now ancient battle are still trapped the remains of those fighters Japan never managed to retrieve. Broken lives, terrible memories of a momentous conflict that claimed more victims than any other massacre.
And here, life flourished back again, covering the wrecks with luxurious corals and sea animals. As if to remind us that the world goes on anyway, never worrying about our fights, nor about the heroic victories we like to brag about.

(Thanks, Stefano Emilio!)

Paul Grappe, the diserter transvestite

Sometimes the most unbelievable stories remain forever buried between the creases of history. But they may happen to leave a trail behind them, although very small; a little clue that, with a good deal of fortune and in the right hands, finally brings them to light. As archaeologists dig up treasures, historians unearth life’s peculiarities.

If Paul Grappe hadn’t been murdered by his wife on the 28th of July 1928, not a single hint to his peculiar story would have been found in the Archive of the Paris Police Prefecture. And if Fabrice Virgili, research manager at the CNRS, scrutinizing the abovementioned archives almost one hundred years later to write an article about conjugal violence at the beginning of the century, hadn’t given a look at that dossier…

The victim: Grappe Paul Joseph, born on the 30th of August 1891 in Haute Marne, resident 34 Rue de Bagnolet, shot dead on the 28th of July 1928.

The culprit: Landy Louise Gabrielle, born on the 10th of March 1892 in Paris, Grappe’s spouse.

This is how the life of Paul Grappe ended. But, as we go back through the years starting from the trial papers, we discover something really astonishing.

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In the 1910s Paris sounds like a promise to a young man coming from Haute-Marne. It was mainly a working-class context and like everybody else the twenty-year-old Paul Grappe worked hard to make ends meet. He hadn’t received a proper education but the uncontrollable vitality that would mark out his entire existence encouraged him to work hard: with stubborn determination he obliged himself to study, and became an optician. He also attended some mandolin’s courses, where he met Louise Landy.

Their modest financial means didn’t interfere with their feelings: they fell in love and in 1911 they tied the knot. Shortly afterwards, Paul had to leave for military service, but managed to be appointed to stand guard over the bastions of Paris, in order to be close to his own Louise. Our soldier was a skilled runner, he could ride, swim (which was quite uncommon at the time) and he quickly distinguished himself until he was appointed corporal. Having spent the required two years on active service, Paul thought he was finally done with the army. But the War clouds were gathering, and everything quickly deteriorated. In August 1914 Paul Grappe was sent to the front to fight against Germany.

The 102nd Infantry division constantly moved, day after day, because the front was not well defined yet. Then gradually came the time to confront the enemy: at the beginning there were only small skirmishes, then came the first wounded, the first dead. And, finally, the real battle began. For the French, the most bloody stage of the entire world war was exactly this first battle, called Battle of the Frontiers, that claimed thousands of victims – more than 25,000 in one day, the 22nd of August 1914.

Paul Grappe was at the forefront. When Hell arrived, he had to confront its devastating brutality.

He was wounded in the leg at the end of August, he was treated and sent back to the trenches in October. The situation had changed, the front was stabilized, but the battles were not less dangerous. During a bloody gunfight Paul was wounded again, in the right index finger. A finger hit by a bullet? He was strongly suspected of having practiced self-mutilation, and in such situations people were not particularly kind to those who did something like that: Paul risked death penalty and summary execution. But some brothers in arms gave evidence for him, and Paul escaped the war court. Convalescent, he was moved to Chartres. December, January, February and March went by. Four months seemed to be too much time to recover from the loss of one single finger, and his superiors suspected that Paul was willingly reopening his wounds (like many other soldiers used to do); in April 1915 he was ordered to go back to the front. And it was here that, confronted with the perspective of going back to that horrible limbo made of barbed wire, mud, whistling bullets and cannon shots, Paul decided that he would change his life forever: he chose to desert.

He left the military hospital and, instead of going to the barracks, he caught the first train to Paris.

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We can only imagine how Louise felt: she was happy to learn that her husband was safe and sound, far from the war, and afraid that everything could end at any moment, if he was discovered. During the spring of 1915 the army was desperately in need of men, even people declared unfit for military service were sent to the front, and consequently the efforts to find the missing deserters were redoubled. For three times the guards burst into the home of his mother-in-law, where Paul was hidden, but couldn’t find him.

As for Paul – that had always had a wild and untamed temper – he couldn’t stand the pressure of secrecy. He was obliged to live as a real prisoner, he didn’t dare stick his nose out of the door: simply walking down the streets of Paris, a young man in his twenties would have aroused suspicion at that time because all the young men – maybe with the exception of some ministry’s employees – were at the front.

One day, overcome by boredom, joking with Louise he chose one of her dresses and wore it. Why not dress up as a woman?

Louise and Paul took a turn. He had a careful shave; his wife put a delicate make-up on him, adjusted the female clothes, put his head into a lady’s little hat. It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but it might work.

Holding their breath, they went out in the streets. They walked down the road for a little while, pretending to be at ease. They sat down in a café, and realized that people apparently didn’t notice anything strange about those two friends that were enjoying their drinks. Coming back home, they shivered as they noticed a man that was intensely gazing at them, fixing them… the man finally whistled in admiration. It was the ultimate evidence: disguised as a woman, Paul was so convincing that he deceived even the attentive eye of a tombeur de femmes.

From that moment on, to the outside world, the two of them formed a couple of women who used to live together. Paul bought some clothes, adopted a more feminine hairstyle, learnt to change his voice. He chose the name of Suzanne Landgard. For those who take on a new identity, it is very important to choose a proper name, and Landgard could be interpreted as “he who protects (garde) Landy?”.

Now Paul/Suzanne could go out barefaced, he could also contribute to the family economy: while Louise worked in a company that produced educational materials, Suzanne started working in a tailor’s shop. But maybe she struggled to stay in her role, because, as far as we know, she frequently changed job because of problems concerning her relationship with her colleagues.

War was over, at last. Paul wanted to stop living undercover, but he was still in danger. Like many other deserters used to do at the time, also our couple left for Spain (a neutral country) and for a short time took shelter in the Basque Country. They returned to Paris in 1922.

But the atmosphere of the capital had changed: the so-called “crazy years” had just begun and Paris was a town that wanted to forget the war at any cost. It was therefore rich in novelties, artistic avant-gardes and unrestrained pleasures. Louise and Suzanne realized that after all they may look like two garçonnes, fashionable women flaunting a masculine hairdo and wearing trousers, shocking conservative people. Louise used to paint lead toy soldiers during the evening, after work, to make some extra money.

Paul couldn’t find a job instead, and his insatiable lust for life led him to spend some time at the Bois de Boulogne, a public park that during those years was a well known meeting point for free love: there gathered libertines, partner-swappers, prostitutes and pimps.

Did Paul, dressed as Suzanne, whore to bring some money home? Maybe he didn’t. Anyhow, he became one of the “queen” of the Bois.

From then on, his days became crowded with casual intercourses, orgies, female and male lovers, and even encoded newspaper ads. Paul/Suzanne even tried to convince Louise to participate in these erotic meetings, but this only fuelled the first conflicts within the couple, that was very close until then.

His thirst for experience was not yet satiated: in 1923 Suzanne Landgard was one of the first “women” that jumped with a parachute.

You are not tall enough, my dear, I am a refined person, I want to get out of this mass, this brute mass that goes to work in the morning, like slaves do, and goes back home at evening”, he repeated to Louise.

In January 1924 the long awaited amnesty arrived at last.

The same morning in which the news was spread, Paul went down the stairs dressed as a man, without make-up. The porter of the apartment building was shocked as she saw him go out: “Madame Suzanne, have you gone crazy?” “I am not Suzanne, I am Paul Grappe and I am going to declare myself a deserter to apply for the amnesty.” As soon as the authorities learnt about his case, even the press discovered it. Some newspaper headlines read: “The transvestite deserter”. Prejudices started to circulate: paradoxically, now that he was discovered to be a man (so the two supposed lesbians were a married couple) Paul and Louise were evicted. The Communist Party mobilized to defend the two proletarians that were victims of prejudices, and in a short time Paul found himself at the core of an improvised social debate. The little popularity he gained maybe went to his head: believing that he may become a celebrity, or have some chance as an actor, he started to distribute autographed pictures of him both as a male and as a female and went as far as to hire a book agent.

But the more prosaic reality was that Paul told the fantastic story of his endeavours mostly in the cafés, to be offered some drinks. He showed the picture album of him as Suzanne, and also kept a dossier of obscene photographs, that are lost today. Little by little he started to drink at least five litres of wine per day. He lost one job after another, and turned aggressive even at home.

As he recovered his manhood – that same virility that condemned him to the horror of the trenches – he became violent. Before the Great War he had shown no signs of bisexuality nor violence, and most probably the traumas he suffered on the battlefield had a share in the quick descent of Paul Grappe into alcoholism, brutality and chaos.

He used to spend all the salary of his wife to get drunk. The episodes of domestic violence multiplied.

In a desperate attempt of reconciliation, Louise accepted to participate in her husband’s sexual games, and in order to please him (this is what she declared later in her deposition) took an attractive Spanish boy named Paco as her lover. But the unstable Paul didn’t appreciate her efforts, and started to feel annoyed by this third party. When he ordered his wife to leave Paul, Louise left him instead.

From that moment on, their story looks like the sad and well-known stories of many drifting couples: he found her at her mother’s home, he threatened her with a gun, and begged her to go back home with him. She surrendered, but she quickly discovered she was pregnant. Who was the father? Paul, or her lover Paco? In December 1925 the child was born, and Louise decided to call him Paul – obviously to reassure her husband about his fatherhood. The three of them lived a serene life for some months, like a real family. Paul started again to look for a job and tried to drink less. But it didn’t last. Crises and violence started again, until the night of the murder the man apparently went as far as to threaten to hurt his child. Louise killed Paul shooting twice at his head, then ran to the police headquarters to give herself up.

The trial had a certain media echo, because of the sensationalist hues of the story: the accused, the wife that shot dead the “transvestite deserter”, was represented by the famous lawyer Maurice Garçon. While Louise was in prison, her child died of meningitis. Therefore the lawyer insisted on the fact that the widow was also a mourning mother, a victim of conjugal violence that had to kill her husband to protect their infirm child – on the other hand he tried to play down the woman’s complicity in her husband’s desertion, transvestism, and shocking behaviours. In 1929, Louise Landy was declared innocent, which rarely happened in the case of trials for murder of the spouse. From that moment on Louise disappeared from any news section, and there was no more news about her except that she got married again, and then died in 1981.

The story of Paul Grappe, with all that it suggests about those troubled times, the traumas of the soldiers, the inner conflicts implied by gender, was discovered by Fabrice Virgili who told it in his book La garçonne et l’assassin : Histoire de Louise et de Paul, déserteur travesti dans le Paris des années folles (the title is ironical, and the garçonne is obviously Paul, whereas Louise is the murderer), and also inspired the comic strip by Chloé Cruchaudet entitled Mauvais genre.

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Le fate crudeli

Dite addio a Campanellino, e alle graziose fate delle fiabe della vostra infanzia. Ecco che arrivano le aggressive, violente, rissose fate di Tessa Farmer.

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Tessa Farmer è nata a Birmingham, nel Regno Unito, nel 1978. Diplomatasi alla Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art di Oxford, le sue incredibili opere le hanno già fruttato numerosi premi e riconoscimenti. Si tratta di installazioni del tutto particolari, in quanto realizzate unicamente con materiale biologico: insetti, piccoli animali, foglie, rametti, ecc.; ma la peculiarità delle sculture è di essere talmente minuscole che per apprezzarne appieno i dettagli è necessaria una lente d’ingrandimento. Il lungo e laborioso lavoro di assemblaggio dà vita a degli impressionanti diorami le cui protagoniste assolute sono proprio le fate, create con ali di insetto e un intreccio di microscopiche radici.

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Ma le fate di Tessa Farmer sono, come dicevamo, molto distanti dalla raffigurazione iconografica tradizionale e folkloristica: si tratta di piccole creature scheletriche, orribili, dall’espressione e dai modi truci.

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Ogni diorama raffigura un differente massacro ad opera dell’armata dei bellicosi esserini alati. L’opera intitolata The Resurrection Of The Rat (2008), viene presentata ufficialmente così:

Le fate hanno catturato, ucciso e mangiato la carne del ratto, prima di rilavorare la sua struttura ossea al fine di creare un’architettura multifunzionale. C’è una sezione adibita a gabbia, un nido di vespe e diverse aree per esperimenti e torture.

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Ancora più fantastica e terribile la descrizione dell’installazione chiamata The Desecration Of The Swallow, del 2007:

Le mosche stavano deponendo le uova sulla rondine, e le loro larve stavano consumandola, finché le fate gliela sottrassero, e la fecero volare nuovamente imbrigliando insetti alati al suo corpo. Ora è divenuta una nave nella loro flotta, oltre che un pasto.

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Le opere di Tessa Farmer, fantasie macabre e dalla crudele ironia, colpiscono lo spettatore non soltanto per la complessità della loro realizzazione ma soprattutto per il modo in cui giocano con il nostro immaginario, capovolgendo le connotazioni classiche associate alla figura delle fate. Da sempre simbolo della Natura incontaminata e magica (benefica), esse sono qui proposte come esponenti della parte più inquietante del regno animale: quella dell’aggressione parassitaria, dello sfruttamento al di là dei fini alimentari, del sadismo, della carneficina.

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Ma le apocalissi in miniatura della Farmer suggeriscono anche un secondo livello di lettura. Forse, ciò che rende questi esserini talmente odiosi è la loro sospetta, inquietante somiglianza con la specie umana.

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Ecco il sito ufficiale di Tessa Farmer.

Elefanti da guerra

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All’alba dell’ 1 ottobre del 331 a.C., in una spianata situata ai piedi di una montagna che ricordava le gobbe di un cammello, i soldati Macedoni videro qualcosa che non avrebbero voluto vedere. Le truppe nemiche, quelle di Dario III Imperatore di Persia, avevano messo in campo la più poderosa e terribile arma di guerra dell’antichità. Cercate di figurarvi il panico dei Macedoni nel vedere qualcosa che non avevano mai nemmeno immaginato: al centro dello schieramento nemico stavano pronti all’attacco 15 animali sconosciuti, mastodontici, minacciosi, che sembravano partoriti dal peggiore degli incubi. Furono talmente terrorizzati che Alessandro Magno, il loro re e comandante, decise di offrire un sacrificio a Phobos, il Dio della Paura, affinché donasse loro il coraggio di affrontare le bestie incredibili.

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Si stima che la battaglia di Gaugamela sia la prima volta in cui dei soldati Europei vennero in contatto con gli elefanti da guerra; eppure i pachidermi venivano utilizzati per scopi militari già da otto secoli, in Asia. Si trattava di un’arma strategicamente esplosiva: quasi impossibili da uccidere con le frecce o le lance (il nome “pachiderma” etimologicamente indica, appunto, una pelle spessa), capaci di arrivare a una velocità di 30 km/h durante una carica, gli elefanti potevano sfondare le difese nemiche, calpestare e, nel caso degli elefanti africani muniti di zanne, infilzare i soldati della fazione avversa. Posti al centro del plotone di attacco, erano capaci di produrre una vera e propria carneficina, incutendo inoltre spavento e paura negli eserciti che non erano nemmeno a conoscenza della loro esistenza, e per i quali sembravano animali fantastici e magici alla stregua dei draghi.

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War elephants in battle with Dacians and Sarmatians

Gli elefanti da guerra vennero utilizzati dal 1100 a.C. fino all’arrivo della polvere da sparo nel 1400 d.C., quindi per 25 secoli. Vi ricorderete degli elefanti di Pirro e, certamente, di quelli di Annibale, decimati dal freddo delle Alpi. Ma le battaglie in cui venne fatto uso dei mastodontici mammiferi non si contano. Durante le guerre Puniche, sulla schiena dell’elefante veniva spesso montata una piccola torretta capace di ospitare fino a tre arcieri, che potevano colpire da una posizione privilegiata – sembra che la torre del gioco degli scacchi originariamente fosse posta a cavallo di un elefante, e provenga proprio da questo importante pezzo di strategia militare. Non c’era cavalleria che resistesse agli elefanti, anche perché i cavalli erano normalmente impauriti dall’odore dei pachidermi. Sull’elefante venivano inoltre montate lame aggiuntive (sulla proboscide) e rinforzi per le zanne.

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In realtà, l’arma si rivelò piuttosto in fretta a doppio taglio: tutto stava, infatti, nel riuscire a spaventare gli animali. I Romani capirono che bastava ferire gli elefanti, o terrorizzarli con fanfare e trombe molto acute, perché essi cercassero la fuga, spesso ritorcendosi contro il nemico, travolgendo nella loro corsa le falangi che li seguivano. Apposite indicazioni vennero date agli arceri e ai fanti per colpirli al tronco, in modo che le ferite li facessero imbizzarrire. Queste strategie fecero sì che il guidatore dell’elefante, il cosiddetto mahout, fosse dotato di uno scalpello e di un martello, per spezzare la spina dorsale dell’animale nel caso fosse colto dal panico. Ci si accorse anche che gli elefanti erano facilmente spaventati dalle acute grida dei maiali; l’assedio di Megara fu infranto dopo che i Megaresi cosparsero di olio alcuni porci, a cui diedero fuoco e che spinsero poi verso le truppe nemiche. Gli elefanti, terrorizzati dalle grida degli infuocati maiali, devastarono il campo imbizzarriti.

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Alcuni elefanti da guerra divennero famosi, come ad esempio Abul-Abbas, un elefante albino donato a Carlomagno dal califfo di Baghdad. Con l’avvento delle armi da fuoco, questo importante elemento militare venne a sfumare. Ma per concludere ricordiamo il curioso episodio della battaglia di Hildighati, del 1576, combattuta fra le forze di Mewar e l’armata Mughal. Il famoso cavallo Chetak, appartenente al comandante di Mewar, venne corazzato con un’armatura che mirava a camuffarlo come un cucciolo di elefante. L’idea era che gli elefanti da guerra l’avrebbero risparmiato, durante il combattimento, sembrando egli simile ai piccoli della loro specie. Purtroppo il cavallo Chetak morì a causa di ferite fatali dalle lame poste sul muso di un elefante, quindi pare proprio che lo stratagemma non abbia funzionato.

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Soldati fantasma

La Seconda Guerra Mondiale era finita. Il 2 settembre 1945 entrò formalmente in vigore l’ordine di resa imposto dagli Alleati alle forze armate giapponesi. A tutte le truppe dislocate nei vari avamposti per il controllo del Pacifico vennero diramati dispacci che annunciavano la triste verità: il Giappone aveva perso la guerra, e i soldati avevano l’ordine di consegnare le armi al nemico. Ma, per quanto incredibile possa sembrare, alcuni di questi soldati “rimasero indietro”.

Shoichi Yokoi era stato spedito nell’arcipelago delle Marianne nel 1943. L’anno successivo gli Stati Uniti presero il controllo dell’isola di Guam, sconfiggendo la sua armata, ma Yokoi fuggì e si nascose nella giungla assieme ad altri nove soldati, deciso a resistere fino alla morte all’avanzata delle truppe americane. Passò il tempo, e sette dei suoi nove compagni decisero di separarsi: del gruppo originale, rimasero Yokoi e altri due irriducibili soldati. Alla fine, anche questi ultimi tre decisero di separarsi per motivi di sicurezza, ma continuarono a mantenere i contatti finché un giorno Yokoi scoprì che i suoi due compagni erano morti di fame e stenti. Ma neanche questo bastò a convincerlo a darsi per vinto. Anche una morte solitaria era preferibile alla resa.

Yokoi imparò a cacciare, durante la notte, per non essere avvistato dai nemici. Si preparò abiti con le piante locali, costruì letti di canne, mobili, utensili. Un giorno di gennaio due pescatori che stavano controllando le reti lo avvistarono nei pressi di un fiume. Riuscirono ad avere la meglio, e dopo un breve combattimento riuscirono a catturarlo e a trascinarlo fuori dalla foresta. Era l’anno 1972. Yokoi era rimasto nascosto nella giungla per 28 anni. “Con vergogna, ma sono tornato”, dichiarò al suo rientro in patria, dove venne accolto con i massimi onori. La fotografia del suo primo taglio di capelli in 28 anni apparve su tutti i giornali, e Yokoi divenne una personalità. L’esercito gli riconobbe la paga arretrata in un ammontare di circa 300$.

Ma Yokoi non fu il più tenace dei soldati fantasma giapponesi. Due anni più tardi, nel 1974, nell’isola filipina di Lubang, venne scoperto il rifugio segreto di Hiroo Onoda, ufficiale dell’Esercito imperiale giapponese che si trovava lì dal 1944.

Dopo essere sfuggito all’attacco statunitense nel 1945, Onoda ed altri tre commilitoni si erano nascosti nella giungla, decisi a frenare l’avanzata del nemico ad ogni costo. Il codice etico e guerriero del bushidō impediva loro anche solo di credere che la loro patria, il grande Giappone, si fosse potuto arrendere. Così, nonostante fossero arrivate notizie della fine della guerra, essi non vollero prestarci fede, e anche alcuni volantini furono reputati dei falsi di propaganda degli Alleati. Dopo che un compagno si era arreso e gli altri due erano rimasti uccisi, Onoda continuò da solo la “missione” per quasi trent’anni.

Nel 1974 un giapponese, Norio Suzuki, riuscì infine a scovarlo e a confermargli che la guerra era finita. Onoda si rifiutò di lasciare la sua posizione, dichiarando che avrebbe preso ordini soltanto da un suo superiore. Suzuki tornò in Giappone, con le foto che dimostravano che Onoda era ancora in vita, e riuscì a rintracciare il suo diretto superiore, che nel frattempo si era ritirato a fare il libraio. Così il vecchio maggiore intraprese il viaggio per Lubang, e una volta arrivato in contatto con Onoda lo informò “ufficialmente” della fine delle ostilità, avvenuta 29 anni prima, e gli ordinò di consegnare le armi. Finalmente Onoda si arrese, riconsegnando la divisa, la spada, il suo fucile ancora perfettamente funzionante, 500 munizioni e diverse granate. Ma al suo rientro in patria, la celebrità lo sorprese negativamente; per quanto si guardasse attorno, i valori antichi del Giappone secondo i quali aveva vissuto e per i quali aveva combattuto una personale guerra di trent’anni, ai suoi occhi erano scomparsi. Onoda vive oggi in Brasile, con la moglie e il fratello.

Sette mesi più tardi di Onoda, un ultimo soldato fantasma venne rintracciato a Morotai, in Indonesia. Si trattava di Teruo Nakamura, ma il suo destino sarebbe stato ben diverso da quello degli altri tenaci guerrieri solitari giapponesi. In effetti Nakamura era nato a Taiwan, e non in Giappone. Non parlava né cinese né giapponese; inoltre, non era un ufficiale come Onoda, ma un soldato semplice. Aveva vissuto per trent’anni in una capanna di pochi metri quadri, recintata, nella foresta. Già gravemente malato, visse soltanto quattro anni in seguito al suo ritrovamento. Taiwan e il Giappone si scontrarono a lungo sulla sua vicenda, su questioni di rimborsi e risarcimenti, e l’opinione pubblica si divise sul diverso trattamento riservato ai precedenti soldati fantasma.

Voci relative ad altri avvistamenti di soldati fantasma si sono spinte fino ai giorni nostri, ma spesso si sono rivelate dei falsi, e Nakamura rimane a tutt’oggi l’ultimo “soldato giapponese rimasto indietro” ufficialmente riconosciuto. Eppure, forse, da qualche parte nella giungla, c’è ancora qualche guerriero, ormai ultraottantenne, che scruta l’orizzonte per avvistare le truppe nemiche, e ingaggiare l’eroico combattimento che attende da una vita.

Ecco la pagina di Wikipedia che dettaglia tutti i ritrovamenti dei vari soldati fantasma giapponesi dal 1945 ad oggi.

MEAT

Dimitri Tsykalov è un artista russo. Utilizza diverse tecniche di scultura per trasformare oggetti comuni in opere d’arte stupefacenti e metaforicamente stimolanti.

Ha cominciato costruendo alcune installazioni che ricreano completamente in legno oggetti che normalmente sono composti di altri materiali: in questo interno di una camera, ad esempio, tutto, dal cuscino alle coperte, al computer, al lavandino, al WC, ogni cosa è interamente scolpita nel legno.

In seguito, ha costruito una Porsche a grandezza naturale, ancora in legno. Le sue sono opere d’arte che ci spingono a guardare diversamente certi aspetti della realtà. Deperiscono velocemente di fronte agli occhi degli spettatori: in un certo senso, offrono delle forme vuote e biodegradabili, come se tutta la nostra tecnologia fosse votata alla distruzione. Questa Porsche non è altro che un segno, riconoscibile, ma il materiale di cui è composta ci rende visibile il suo destino ineluttabile. Basterebbe un po’ d’acqua per rovinarla completamente, e prima o poi la sua struttura si disintegrerà, distruggendo contemporaneamente il simbolo con tutti i valori che ad esso sono connessi.

Stesso discorso vale per gli organi umani in legno: sembrano fissi ed eterni, ma esibiscono anche una fragilità che conosciamo bene, anche se raramente ci soffermiamo a rifletterci.

Per rendere ancora più chiaro il concetto, Tsykalov è poi passato a scolpire teschi ricavati da vegetali: la “vita” di queste opere è ancora minore. Risulta chiaro che le sue non sono altro che moderne vanitas, destinate a ricordarci la futilità delle nostre esistenze.

Ma è con la sua ultima opera che Tsykalov ha davvero creato qualcosa di unico e impressionante. Intitolata MEAT (“carne”), la serie ci mostra i corpi nudi di diversi modelli che impugnano armi fatte di carne, indossano elmetti scolpiti a partire da bistecche e insaccati, sono imprigionati da catene di salsicce.

Queste fotografie toccano alcuni punti precisi del nostro sistema simbolico. Da una parte, ammiccano alla (con)fusione di carne e metallo che gran parte ha avuto nell’iconografia post-moderna. Dall’altra, mostrano una guerra fatta di carne e sangue, in cui l’avanzata tecnologia non appare più fredda e metallica, ma costruita con le stesse logiche del macello. Inoltre, l’utilizzo di hot-dog, hamburger e altre forme di consumo della carne, riporta tutto all’idea del cibo. La bellezza dei modelli contrasta con le macabre situazioni in cui sono coinvolti.

La rappresentazione di Tsykalov mira a mostrare l’essere umano per ciò che è veramente. Un’accozzaglia di bellezza e putridume, violenza ed estasi, bisogni animaleschi e illusioni razionalistiche. Ed è proprio sui simboli che Tsykalov lavora più efficacemente: vedere una bandiera (che potrebbe essere qualsiasi bandiera) completamente composta di carne macellata non può che far riflettere.

Gueules cassées

La Prima Guerra Mondiale fu un vero e proprio massacro. Ma il peggio non venne per chi restò sotto il fuoco delle prime mitragliatrici, o per chi rimase vittima dei gas o delle bombe. Molti furono così fortunati da salvarsi, e così sfortunati da tornare a casa con ferite assolutamente agghiaccianti. I ritardi nei soccorsi non fecero che peggiorare la situazione dei feriti, che spesso non si ripresero più integralmente.

Una categoria particolare di reduci con ferite di guerra è costituito dalle cosiddette gueules cassées, termine francese che significa pressappoco “facce fracassate”. Erano i militari che avevano riportato estese ferite al volto, e che erano per così dire “impresentabili” e dunque difficilmente reintegrabili nella società. Per la prima volta nella storia, però, la medicina aveva i mezzi per cercare di ovviare a questi incidenti. Stiamo parlando, qui, degli esordi pionieristici della chirurgia plastica ricostruttiva del maxillo-facciale. Sulla base di queste prime esperienze i chirurghi furono in grado di sviluppare un’esperienza che, affinatasi nel tempo, permette oggi di restituire una vita quasi normale a persone sfigurate. (È triste ammetterlo, ma questi soldati fecero anche inconsapevolmente da cavia per quelle tecniche che successivamente portarono alla chirurgia estetica vera e propria, quella delle labbra al silicone, del lifting o dei seni rifatti).

In questo blog abbiamo già parlato di terapie piuttosto crudeli relative agli albori della medicina. Quello che colpisce sempre nel riesaminare a distanza di quasi un secolo queste tecniche mediche primitive, è la scarsa considerazione che i medici sembravano avere della sofferenza del paziente. Confrontate i tentativi odierni di essere sempre meno invasivi, delicati, poco intrusivi, con queste tecniche antiquate: il dolore era qualcosa che andava sopportato, punto e basta, mentre i dottori cercavano di salvarti la pelle o migliorarti la vita.

Prendiamo ad esempio i sistemi per aprire la bocca del paziente. Molto spesso, dopo un trauma facciale, i muscoli della mascella rimanevano tirati e in tensione e aprire la bocca risultava impossibile. A seconda del grado di gravità, venivano utilizzati diversi sistemi. L’apri-bocca più comune era questo:

Si trattava di una sorta di morsa “al contrario” che veniva aperta gradualmente per allentare la tensione dei muscoli. Aveva effetti poco rilevanti nel tempo. Altri metodi, però, erano ancora più drastici e dolorosi.

Il “procedimento del sacco”, esposto dal dottor Pitsch nel 1916, è un esempio di terapia davvero brutale. Una volta trovato un interstizio tra i denti, due assicelle venivano inserite nella mascella del paziente.

Appena dischiuse le due pareti dentarie, un uncino veniva attaccato alla mascella inferiore e a questo veniva attaccato un sacco pieno di sassi o carbone il cui peso veniva velocemente aumentato per consentire l’apertura della bocca.

Il procedimento era dolorosissimo e non aveva effetti notevoli a lungo termine, perché i muscoli, troppo bruscamente e violentemente stirati, si ricontraevano poco dopo. Anche se la trazione veniva bilanciata da una banda che tratteneva il capo del paziente, le vertebre della nuca risentivano comunque dello stress.

Più complesso ancora era il caso dei volti sottoposti a un vero e proprio trauma che li aveva lasciati a brandelli e con ferite aperte. La protesi immediata veniva effettuata mediante maschere di contenimento che riportassero assieme i vari frammenti di volto, in modo che non si allontanassero ma anzi si fondessero assieme. L’idea era quella di cicatrizzare l’area più grande possibile, favorendo il consolidamento in buona posizione delle fratture, per permettere in seguito la riparazione delle parti lese. Il casco di Darcissac teneva insieme i diversi “pezzi” di faccia finché non si fossero riattaccati e cicatrizzati. L’intera procedura durava due o tre settimane, di immobilizzazione assoluta.

Passarono alcuni anni, prima che nel 1918 si arrivasse alla rivoluzionaria tecnica di Dufourmentel. Egli scoprì infatti che la pelle del cuoio capelluto reagiva meglio ed era più solida rispetto a quella del braccio. Tagliando quindi ampi lembi di pelle dal cranio dei pazienti, Dufourmentel riuscì a ricostruire elementi fino ad allora inapprocciabili della ricostruizione facciale. Ecco una mandibola “rimodellata” a partire dal cuio capelluto.

Anche gli italiani ebbero una parte in questa “corsa” alla ricostruzione dei volti dei reduci. I medici, infatti, provarono anche a ricorrere a una metodologia già inventata e spiegata addirittura nel XVI secolo dal chirurgo italiano Tagliacozzi, modificando qua e là il procedimento e le indicazioni di questo storico precursore. Questa tecnica si applicava soprattutto alle perdite moderate di tessuto nell’area nasale e del mento.

L’idea era quella di “rialzare” un lembo di pelle dal braccio, connetterlo al tessuto mancante del volto e lasciare che la pelle facesse il suo lavoro, “ricucendosi” con le parti mancanti. Ovviamente bisognava assicurarsi che il braccio fosse immobilizzato, per due o tre settimane, al fine di permettere la vascolarizzazione dei nuovi tessuti. Questa tecnica era stata, nei secoli precedenti, violentemente ostracizzata dalla Chiesa, a motivo della presunta interferenza con i piani del Creatore, e la Santa Sede dispose addirittura la riesumazione del Tagliacozzi e la sua sepoltura in terra non consacrata.

Infine la tecnica di ricostruzione prevedeva degli esperti dentisti che, a partire dai calchi del volto dei pazienti, progettavano e scolpivano protesi che potessero ridare loro la fisionomia perduta.

Le protesi alle volte includevano occhiali per dissimulare l’artificio.

Infine, ecco un raro filmato della Croce Rossa, datato 1918, in cui alcuni dottori e infermiere posizionano e controllano l’efficacia delle protesi facciali su alcuni reduci.

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Le tecnologie di ricostruzione del maxillo-facciale hanno da allora fatto un passo in avanti decisivo, e ad oggi costituiscono la fortuna di chirurghi plastici proprietari di atolli e isolotti, così come di onesti medici che cercano di ridare il sorriso e un’integrazione maggiore alle vittime di incidenti terribili.

Per ironia della sorte, la chirurgia estetica è nata proprio da uno dei più grandi e sanguinosi confilitti che il mondo abbia mai conosciuto.