Unknown Muses

The beauty of death. The endless fascination with the mysterious young woman called L’ Inconnue de la Seine – sometimes known as the Mona Lisa of the Seine – represents not just the union of life and death but the paradox of beauty after death. This notion also concerns the post-mortem, where beauticians engage in a range of scientific and aesthetic processes to service the living as much as the dead: an unspoken cultural protocol ensuring the still body will appear to loved ones very much as the person did in life.


The figure forever known as L’ Inconnue de la Seine – the unknown woman of the Seine – was dragged from the Parisian river at the end of the 19th century. The corpse of the anonymous suicide victim made history with an unlikely expression of serenity. Eyes closed, jaw relaxed and mouth slightly upturned into a sentient smile. Her hair parted in the middle and laid flat to the skull, eyelashes clustered. All of which give the impression that she is still wet from the river. Completely entranced (or so the story goes), the forensic scientist tending to the body in the morgue took a plaster cast of her head, and since then this death mask has fixated the masses.

During the 1920s and 30s, imitations of the young woman were widely circulated around French markets and tourist shop fronts, sold as a household ornament and printed on postcards. Ultimately, the face of the unknown woman became famous and in a macabre turn of popularity she became a symbol of beauty, artistic inspiration and even eroticism. Of course, the cultural acclaim she attracted was in part due to the conventional aesthetic femininity of the young girl’s face. However, it is also the mystery around the living existence of the Inconnue that captured the imagination of the public. She allows us to muse over her life with our own fabrications, based by and large on that gentle and intriguing final expression that followed her into death.

A composite image of L'Inconnue de la Seine. Rebecca Fortnum, 2012.

The fixation did not live and die in early 20th-century France, however, and over time has led to unlikely reincarnations that permeate life today. In the late 1950s, Austrian physician Peter Safar and American doctor James Elam called upon a Norwegian toy maker named Asmund Laerdal to collaborate on the development of an innovative way to teach cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Laerdal, having previously saved his son’s life using CPR, had a personal engagement with the concept and could use his toy making skills to model the rubber dummy. As it was assumed that men would be reluctant to practice mouth-to-mouth on a male dummy, a female was needed on which to base their creation. In a stroke of fortune, while visiting his parent’s home Laerdal was inspired by a serene death mask hanging on the wall. It remains unknown whether the collaborators were aware of the late woman’s rich reputation, yet it is in this ironic transmigration that the drowned icon has become the most kissed face of all time. Commonly known as Resusci Anne, she is preserved in an eternal cycle of rebirth as thousands attempt to resuscitate her each year. While her death remains a mystery, in her new life she teaches others how to save the living from a similar fate.

"The corpse of the anonymous suicide victim made history with an unlikely expression of serenity. Eyes closed, jaw relaxed and mouth slightly upturned into a sentient smile."

Various imitations of the iconic death mask continued during the 1970s. Wax and plastic replicas of the Inconnue were produced for the practice of make-up application in beautician training schools. Public infatuation had not faltered and the young beauty had clearly stood the test of time. Although this time around, the reincarnation does suggest a sort of eroticisation of the subject. The serenity conveyed by the Inconnue declares a bold emancipation from certain pressures of self-construction. Completely unmitigated, her final expression almost manifests a sense of pure truth. Applying elaborate make-up to the visage of the Inconnue could force upon her an aesthetic ideal that can only go plaster deep.

Mortician services, on the other hand, seem to hold much more of a consequential and emotive significance. To embalm and apply make-up to dead flesh is bound up with the emotions of the living. For many, to observe the corpse of a loved one is a distressing event. and so much of the work of mortuary beauticians is to ensure that the deceased appear to be sleeping peacefully, much like the expression of the Inconnue. To achieve this, the body will be embalmed (by injecting chemical fluids) and cosmetics are applied in an unconventional way. This can involve reconstructing certain sections of the face and body, completely submerging the skin in viscous liquid to mask the discolouration process, and eventually airbrushing, painting and contouring. They use a combination of specially developed mortuary cosmetics with everyday make-up to establish a natural and peaceful countenance. In this way, mortuary beauticians and associates of the dead engage in a kind of consensual illusionary experience. The dead must not appear dead, yet the living are aware of this truth.

These processes can also ease the anxiety of the deceased. In certain circumstances, when an individual is preparing for their own death, to know that they will appear as they did in life, when observed for the final time, can be comforting. Interestingly, this concern for literal beautification after death has been picked up by some beauty brands. In 2011, Illamasqua launched a service in collaboration with London funeral directors Leverton & Sons called “The Final Act of Self-Expression”. Prices for the unique makeover start at £450 and focus on achieving a bold and extravagant maquillage ‘look’, purely for viewings in an open casket.

The brand writes: “This unique service encourages people for whom making-up is an intimate part of their identity to plan their final transformation, one that pays tribute to who they were in life and how they want to enter the afterlife. Illamasqua encourages people to self-express and fully embrace their alter ego. Why should this be any different when you pass away?”

"To embalm and apply make-up to dead flesh is bound up with the emotions of the living. For many, to observe the corpse of a loved one is a distressing event."

Since 2007, German photographer Patrik Budenz has documented not only the cosmetic and aesthetic aspects of these services but all the grittiness in between. His honest images capture a realm that is unknowable to most. He shines a light on the dedication of the workers carrying out post-mortems and shows the mundane reality of death. Budenz does not hold back in his Post Mortem series, which is shocking at first view. But as the initial impact of the taboo content eases, the photographs induce a sense of calm intrigue as the viewer is confronted with mortality and realises that these bodies are being earnestly taken care of. This becomes clear in the image of an old woman’s hand, gently placed on a piece of white protective tissue as a gloved professional applies pale pink nail varnish to long, delicate fingers. The slight discolouration of the skin, conflated with the pastel cosmetics and floral embroidered clothing creates an image that is soft and compassionate. Budenz refers to these intimate processes as a kind of oscillation between life, when the body is dressed in clothing, and decomposition, when the individual is temporarily deconstructed during autopsy, and sees his project as a material tracing of these unique journeys.

Life after death is a question that has long vexed humanity. Yet to face the Inconnue and the subjects of Budenz’s photography is to challenge our perceptions of death and face frankly what is unknown.

The popular phenomenon of L’ Inconnue de la Seine cultivates public comfort in the way that her fate can be resuscitated and made over through a vast spectrum of man-made materiality. In an ironic series of rebirths she has become the most resuscitated woman in history and, in another, the most kissed. This multiplicity of destiny comes as a result of not just the conventional beauty of her face, but the unknown and therefore completely malleable musings of her life. What’s more, the final, famous expression, now remoulded and remade – probably too many times to count – is utterly honest. In a culture freighted with dominant ideologies around the notion of beauty, to view an expression so detached from the rhetoric of the ideal is refreshing and profound.

The subjects of Budenz’s photography, on the other hand, are made over by other means. Cosmetic processes are applied to the cadaver to present and ensure a sense of serenity in death, for both the deceased and the living. To view and be viewed, as one appeared in life, allows a kind of comforting white lie to guide us through the complex ceremonies of death. Rather radically, the Post Mortem series allows us unmitigated access to this realm, perhaps presenting to the viewer a destiny that awaits each and every one of us beyond the not-so-eerie mortuary doors.

Photography Patrik Budenz from his series Post Mortem


Published in Beauty Papers Issue Three