Temporary exhibition "Face of Death. Life's Vigour Through Death Masks"

14 May 2021 to 18 March 2022

“Face of Death. Life’s Vigour Through Death Masks” is dedicated to memories and values of life. Death masks document the person’s face in the most honest and unembellished manner as it was immediately after the last breath, thereby expressing the temporality of life. Also, due to immediate contact with the face of the deceased, they are a kind of cultural relics, charged with the vital force of the deceased, and thus glorifying a life worthy of eternal memory.

The connection of deaths and masks dates back millennia to ancient Mediterranean cultures, where the face of the deceased was covered with a mask during funerary rituals. In Renaissance Italy in the 15th century, death masks started to be used as mementos of the dead. The 18th and especially the 19th century, when death masks were made both to express grief as well as for scientific purposes, could be considered the last height of the tradition of taking death masks in Europe.

By the 20th century, the practice of taking death masks from persons whose life and achievements were seen as worthy of remembering and appreciation took hold in the western cultural space. These days, the tradition is still kept alive by a few funeral agencies and mainly by artistic and theatrical figures.

The exhibition of the University of Tartu Art Museum “Face of Death. Life’s Vigour Through Death Masks” displays a third of the death masks from the collections of Estonian memory institutions, and brings together in one room the lives of 28 significant figures of culture and science. Including, for example, Alexander Pushkin and Immanuel Kant, A. H. Tammsaare and Oskar Luts, Netty Pinna and Kalju Komissarov.

The exhibition invites to discover the phenomenon of making death masks and reflect on the memory of the departed and the legacy they leave behind.

The exhibition is open from 14 May 2021 to 18 March 2022 in the University of Tartu Art Museum.

Curators: Ken Ird, Anu Rae

Designer: Kristjan Suits

Graphic Designer: Katre Rohumaa

Project Manager: Ken Ird

Team: Anne Arus, Karoliina Kalda, Tiiu Kreegipuu, Ele Loonde, Külli Lupkin, Piibe Nõmm, Tanel Nõmmik, Kristiina Ribelus, Külli Valk