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The Corporeal Territories of War: Disfigurement in World War One Britain

Project overview

This Wellcome Trust-funded project, led by Dr Suzannah Biernoff, investigated the cultural significance of facial injury in First World War Britain by exploring specific situations in which the damaged face was portrayed, contemplated and repaired.

Each case study centred on a series of images and the problem of representing (or revealing) the mutilated or disfigured face. Why was facial injury regarded by many as a fate worse even than death? What was at stake in the reconstruction of the war-damaged face? To what extent was (and is) the horror of disfigurement historically specific and culturally mediated? Although I set out to pursue these questions at a particular historical moment - during and immediately after the Great War - the discovery that medical photographs of facial casualties had been used in the computer game BioShock influenced the direction of my research, raising questions about the cultural afterlife of medical images and the contemporary meanings of disfigurement.

Outputs and outcomes

The project findings have been reported in a series of journal articles, described below and available online in keeping with the Wellcome Trust’s open access policy. 

During the Great War, the horror of facial mutilation was evoked in journalism, poems, memoirs and fiction, but it was almost never represented visually outside the professional context of clinical medicine. The most sustained artistic response to the injured face in wartime Britain is the series of pastel drawings by Henry Tonks of soldiers undergoing facial reconstructive surgery. Tonks had been a surgeon before his celebrated career as an artist and teacher at the Slade School of Art and his intimate, fragile drawings served both as medical illustrations and portraits. They are evidence that being human - in the sense of creating, preserving or restoring ‘humanity’ - is an aesthetic matter as much as a biological or medical one. Aside from medical photographs - which I consider alongside Tonks’ pastels - virtually the only known British photographs of facial casualties were taken by the official home front photographer, Horace Nicholls. These are equally ambiguous images, blurring the line between photojournalism, art photography and official record-keeping. Journalists invariably praised the miraculous work of pioneering surgeons like Harold Gillies, who worked with Tonks, but the story of medical progress did not easily translate into images. In an article on the rhetoric of disfigurement, I compare facial injury to portrayals of limb loss, revealing an asymmetrical picture in which the ‘worst loss of all’ - the loss of one’s face - is perceived as a loss of humanity.

Having examined the contexts in which the injured face was portrayed, censored and imagined in wartime Britain, the final essay in the series investigated the digital afterlife of WWI medical photographs. When the computer game BioShock was released in 2007, reviewers praised its immersiveness and moral complexity, but overlooked the extent to which the disturbingly realistic artwork and score relied on found images and sound, including digitized photographs of Gillies’ patients. The implications of these acts of appropriation are considered from a number of critical perspectives including recent literature on the ethics of computer games and an online discussion forum in which players of BioShock discuss the moral ‘grey areas’ of the game.

The project set out to address a neglected area of disability studies; put disfigurement on the agenda in art history and visual studies; and make a timely contribution to the literature on the Great War. It has since evolved into a book, which will be published by the University of Michigan Press. Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement will explore the artistic, medical and journalistic response to facial injury in First World War Britain and the United States, and compare this historical material to contemporary representations of the war-damaged body. This structure serves to illuminate the persistence of certain ideas (for example, that disfigurement is dehumanising and love redemptive) and the weakening of others. A hundred years ago it was assumed that modern medicine could repair the havoc wrought upon the body by modern wars, and it was expected that beauty would compensate and console. Today, plastic surgery is associated with the denaturalised, post-human body and the very idea of beauty has become contested territory.