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Erich Lessing (* 1923)
Franz Lehár on his deathbed, Willy Kauer is modeling the death mask
Austria, Bad Ischl, October 24th, 1948
Gelatin silver print, 36,8 x 46 cm
Signed by the photographer on the reverse

When Franz Lehar died in his villa in Bad Ischl on the 24th of October 1948 an old traditional rite was performed on him when his death mask was cast. Another tradition that had only lasted for a few decades was upheld: a post mortem photograph was taken.

The death masks well known today are an invention of the 19th century, even though the history of the imprint of the face can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt. From the Middle Ages to the Modern Age, they were mainly used as a model for statues and busts of dead monarchs, with the faces often being idealised. At the end of the 18th century the desire to memorise the facial expression of the dead grew, as certain character traits were derived from their expression. Especially death masks of people with extraordinary abilities established themselves as independent objects. During the 20th century the death mask was supposed to simulate vitality. Here the thought that the death mask is a manufactured piece, like the portrait of an artist comes into play. This intention also plays a part in post mortem photography of the 19th century. The photographs, just as the death masks, were seen as an authentic depiction of reality.

The production of a death mask however was only available to a small circle of people, whereas the spread of photography enabled other social stratums to keep mementos of their dead. Photographers were specialised on producing the final image of people. Images of relatives around the deathbed and photos of children that had died were kept in family albums next to the images of the people still alive. Until the 1930s it was very common to lay out the bodies of dead people in the family home. Only the advent of modern society declared death a taboo.

Franz Lehar was born in Kormon (Austria-Hungary, today Slowakia) and was a distinguished composer of operettas. His early success enabled him to devote his time exclusively to his compositions and conducting. His success surpassed that of Johann Strauß. He died in Bad Ischl on the 24th of October 1948. The bed and even the small pillow on which the head of the composer is resting are exhibited in the Lehar Villa until today.

Erich Lessing was born in Vienna in 1923 and had to flee to Palestine in 1938, where he worked as photographer for the British army. In 1947 he returned to Vienna and applied as press photographer to Asociated Press. In 1956 he was the first foreign photographer in Budapest, documenting the Hungarian uprising. He established himself as an internationally sought-after photo journalist and became the observer of politics in post war Europe. In 1950 he was made a member of the legendary Magnum photo agency, founded by Robert Capa in Paris. His work has been published in countless books.

The Viennese make-up artist Willi Kauer (1898–1976) was a renowned specialist for documentary masks for anatomy, forensic medicine, theatre and for the production of living- and death masks. In1948 he bought an old colour metal mask by Jakob Jelinek, which he identified as the death mask of Mozart that had been lost for 157 years. The find remains highly disputed until today.

Ulla Fischer-Westhauser, © WestLicht


Lit.: A. Crawford, E. Lessing, Erich Lessing. Vom Festhalten der Zeit, Vienna 2002, p. 55.

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