A Very Interesting Contoured Anthropomorphic Composition Painted Plaster Death Bust Mask of an African Gentleman c.1930

Origin: Probably Continental
Period: Early/Mid 20thC
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1930-40
Height: 16”
Depth: 14”
Width: 17.5” (all at extremities)

The painted three quarter bust death mask of an African male, as a study for anthropometrics, possibly created for a medical collection, the pink flesh tone painted to the whole with a partial ochre over painted section, the bust moulded in two sections, with contour marks to the top to the temples possibly for the creation of a mask or for the study of eugenics, the whole surviving from the first half of the twentieth century.

In essentially original condition the bust remains in one piece without damage; it does not suffer from any further chips or cracks. There are some light tarnish marks here and there and wear to the extremities.

This example is a curious one, the contoured markings may be later in date than the bust itself, but it is not clear. Painted death masks are not at all common, with the plaster more often than not being left as is. The piece has a backward lean (we can supply the associated stand, as per photos, on request) and is large for its type whilst the skin pigment is a mid pink although the subject is clearly of African origin. The buff over painted section has left the facial features showing the pink hue. It has the feel of a study or preparatory work or perhaps it is unfinished.

This piece has some similarities to the work of Lidio Cipriani who was an Italian explorer and rector of the Institute of Anthropology in Florentine. He made at least 120 plaster casts depicting ninety men and thirty women from different African populations, including Ai-hum, Kung, Bantu and "pygmies" Ituri and Somali groups and the Yemen.These casts were taken from the face of adults, in order to document the “racial types” of Africa and Yemen and were created during his voyages made between 1927 and 1930. The accurate colouring of these "masks modeled on living" reproduces the exact skin tone, measured according to von Luschan scale. Cipriani used pink hues and tones to the masks as we see here even if the subject clearly would have been dark skinned. (with thanks to Edgar Martins).

Anthropological studies became a hot topic in 1781 when Johann Blumenbach designated five races or varieties of man, Caucasian, Monoglian, American, Ethiopian and Malayan races each with descriptive peculiarities which became the basis of most nineteenth century anthropometrical studies.

Death masks are an impression or cast of the face of a deceased person, usually made by oiling the skin and taking a plaster cast of the features, and are the most haunting mementos of the deceased. They have been in existence since the time of Tutankhamun, whose solid gold burial mask is an object of extreme beauty and superstition. Such masks could be used either in a funerary effigy or as a model for a posthumous portrait. It was important that a death mask was made as soon as possible after death so that the character of the deceased was captured before the features started to fall.

A very intriguing piece, large for its type and worthy of further research, and one that captures a fleeting moment in time.