Portraits of Violence

War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement
Suzannah Biernoff
Investigates the artistic, medical, and journalistic responses to facial injury in WWI


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Portraits of Violence explores the image and idea of facial disfigurement in one of its most troubling modern formations, as a symbol and consequence of war. It opens with Nina Berman’s iconic photograph Marine Wedding, which provoked a debate about the medical, military, and psychological response to serious combat injuries. While these issues remain urgent, it is equally crucial to interrogate the representation of war and injury. The concepts of valor, heroism, patriotism, and courage assume visible form and do their cultural work when they are personified and embodied. The mutilated or disabled veteran’s body can connote the brutalizing, dehumanizing potential of modern combat.

Suzannah Biernoff draws on a wide variety of sources mainly from WWI but also contemporary photography and computer games. Each chapter revolves around particular images: Marine Wedding is discussed alongside Stuart Griffiths’ portraits of British veterans; Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI facial casualties are compared to the medical photographs in the Gillies Archives; the production of portrait masks for the severely disfigured is approached through the lens of documentary film and photography; and finally the haunting image of one of Tonks’s patients reappears in BioShock, a highly successful computer game. The book simultaneously addresses a neglected area in disability studies; puts disfigurement on the agenda for art history and visual studies; and makes a timely and provocative contribution to the literature on the First World War.

“A powerful and engaging study of the politics of representation of facial disfigurement in medical and mass culture, Portraits of Violence is a substantial addition to the study of visual culture and disability.”
— Sander Gilman, Emory University

Portraits of Violence thus breaks new scholarly ground and also points out many directions that future research in a number of fields, including disability studies, visual culture and art history, medical humanities and the history of medicine, and the history of World War I.”
— Carol Poore, Brown University

Suzannah Biernoff is Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Visual Culture at Birkbeck, University of London.

Praise / Awards

  • "The book abounds with breadth and imagination. It is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the war and visual culture."
    --Ana Carden-Coyne, Bulletin of the History of Medicine
  • "One of the strengths of Biernoff’s well-researched book is to force us to see that disfigurement as a moral or an aesthetic problem is always in the eye of the beholder...Biernoff’s book is a useful and astringent antidote to either pity or to unfounded claims that disfigured men found redemption through surgery"
    --Jay Winter, Medical History
  • "Biernoff’s approach allows for the uncovering of multiple complex layers of anxiety, shame, and disgust as responses to trauma; these provide a nuanced interpretation of subjective feelings. These emotional responses encompass not only the servicemen who experienced the primary traumatic event, but also the community who comes into contact with that individual and tries to cope with their repressed and revealed reactions to disfigurement."
    --The Polyphony

Look Inside

News, Reviews, Interviews

Watch: Suzannah Biernoff on BBC's WWI at Home series (Link) | 5/28/2014
Read: Coverage of disfigurement art on Smithsonian.com (Link) | 2/1/2007

Product Details

  • 224 pages.
  • 56 Color Images.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2017
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-12269-1

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  • disfigurement, plastic surgery, First World War, prosthetic masks, portraiture, the face, medical archives, ethics of spectatorship, Henry Tonks, BioShock