By Adam Strobejko
This is a dead girl which you are looking at. And, well, this is pretty much one of the only facts we do know about her, despite her post-mortem fame.
In 1880 the body of a 16 year old was pulled out of the Seine River, Paris. Her story and identity remain unknown. As no signs of violence were detected, it indicates that suicide was most likely the cause of death. Being the first spectator of her beauty, the pathologist at the morgue decided to externalise it in a plaster cast death mask. In the mist of decadence, this victim of fin de siècle was exceptional.
Mysterious smile, emanating tranquillity. Her posthumous fate was to be entwined with the artistic community in Paris. Called L’Inconnue de la Seine, she quickly became a symbol and a source of inspiration to local artists. Copies of the death mask became a fixture of Bohemianism, or decorations for artists’ houses. Her mystery was immediately transformed into a contentious motif, used in literature all-across Europe. Some may say that she, as a representation of the unsolved, constituted a link between the physical world and the purely artistic dimension.
Albert Camus compared her smile to Mona Lisa. Vladimir Nabokov linked the Unknown to the myth of rusalka. Al Alvarez named her the Brigitte Bardot of her time. L’Inconnue was the ideal of beauty. She is said to have been the paradigm for her contemporaries, up until she was replaced by Greta Garbo. Grotesque it may seem, as these comparisons and praise are surely inconceivable for the generation surrounded by Disney stars and omnipresent sweetness.
But that was not the end of her fame. In 1958 Åsmund Laerdal created the famous mannequin for CPR courses. The one many of us encountered during first aid classes. Remember the artificial respiration lessons and mouth-to-mouth insufflation? Here comes the interesting part: Laerdal used this girl’s face as the model.
Photo courtesy of ricorso.net