Resulting from an imprint of the face of a recently deceased person, a death-mask is an extreme object in all senses of the words: by direct contact with the flesh it produces a mould from which may be made a seemingly permanent resemblance of a subject whose body is putrefying. Casts are also made from living subjects which then partake of what has been called a mortiferous effect. Masks and casts appear to offer an unmediated record, an approximate equivalence of one of the body’s extremities (faces, hands, and feet are the parts most regularly imprinted).

Apparently lacking meaningful craftsmanship or artistic intervention, they fail to qualify as authored works of art, but nor are they a piece of nature. Death-masks are highly ambiguous: portrait or relic, presence or absence, mechanical product or artwork, surface or three-dimensional object, working tool for a sculptor or object in its own right, source of scientific knowledge or curator’s nightmare. These ambiguities are intrinsic to understanding how casts from human subjects were signified culturally in modern European secular society.

This Power Lecture was held on 12 March 2013, as part of the Sydney Ideas program at the University of Sydney.



Marcia Pointon is Senior Research Professor at Norwich University of the Arts; Professor Emeritus of History of Art at the University of Manchester; and Honorary Research Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Pointon has written extensively on portraiture, landscape, book illustration, the body in representation, gender and imagery. Most recently she has written on the interrelations between the applied arts of jewellery and other forms of historical visual evidence. Her forthcoming book Portrayal and the Search for Identity, published by Reaktion Books, will be available in January 2013.