Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.
Several years ago, I met a very special woman. Yesterday, I learned she had left us. So I’m posting my interview with her as a tribute to a remarkable person who led a life rather less than ordinary.
An Interview with Elsbeth
I drive up the mountain, all hairpin bends and sheer drops till I reach the peak. I take a left and drive until the road runs out. But I know I’m in the right place. A small patch of complicated colour on the side of a mountain – Elsbeth Stoiber’s rose garden.
I’ve met this woman and her forthright opinions many times, but today I’ll get the whole story. How, as a young widow in the 1950s, she travelled around India, collecting examples of skin diseases for moulage (wax representations used to educate dermatologists). How she invented a technique for epithesis to replace missing facial features. How she made Jung’s death mask.
Worn steps lead to the front door of her wooden house, scythes are propped at angles, gardening gloves lay beside secateurs and a small sign says “Je suis en jardin”. I ring the bell and hear a bark. It’s Sirius, a fifteen-year-old Laekenois, an ancient overgrown wire-haired terrier. He’s wobbly on his legs.
“Yes, I know,” says Elsbeth, wearing her ikat jacket and sturdy sandals. “But he has a good appetite and seems content, so I don’t want to kill him.”
Over a pot of peppermint tea, we begin.
“I had a very happy childhood in Stuttgart. My mother came from an old jewellers’ family; my grandfather did church decoration, tabernacles and so on. I played with precious stones like other people play with marbles.” She smiles, her blue eyes distant, framed by a soft grey bob.
“I liked school. I liked learning. I was always the first in class. Which meant I could do a lot of things on the side because I didn’t need much time for schoolwork. I collected Asian art when I was twelve, exchanging things with older collectors, such as Mesopotamian stamp seals.
“I had four older brothers, far older than me – so much fun! Our family was a pure male family, because my father didn’t want my aunts in the house. His friends used to come to play chess or billiards. My brothers brought friends home, but never girlfriends. That was not done. What they did outside the house, I don’t know.” Her grin suggests otherwise.
“How did an interest in Asian art lead to your expertise in moulage?”
“I wasn’t only interested in art, but science too. After a diploma in Technical Chemistry, I attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, where I learned sculpting and painting. By chance, I met Lotte Volger, the greatest moulageuse, who founded the Zürich collection in 1918. She had already retired, but she offered me the chance to be her last student. To share her secret recipe.”
“What a wonderful opportunity!”
“Yes, it was, but I didn’t want to take it. I wanted to go to India.”
“Just out of curiosity. But my mother, a highly intelligent and cultured woman, said Volger is offering you a rare chance. It doesn’t take long, you should do it. So I did. That recipe was very expensive. My mother sacrificed one of her precious stones to pay for it.
“Four months later, Lotte Volger said she could teach me no more, the rest is practice. You have to see and paint and learn the diseases. My mother said, now is the time to go to India. Take your materials and study tropical diseases. Learn something.
“I only had a visa for three months but took a huge box of wax and resins and paints. I had connections with the Indian-German Society, so I knew some doctors in Bombay. In 1956, I left Genoa and travelled by ship for nine days to reach India.”
“On your own?”
“Of course. The leading dermatologist received me and as my mother predicted, gave me access to his patients, seeking the most unusual cases such as leprosy, skin tuberculosis and so on. But I wanted to see other things in India, such as handicrafts, so I went on a tour of Hyderabad with a lady minister of the handicraft society. She was very disciplined; 6am breakfast, 6.15 departure. Wonderful for a German mind, but unexpected in India.”
She laughs, a youthful, open sound which wakes Sirius. He sighs and goes back to sleep.
“Where else did you go?”
“I travelled north to the Himalayan border and spent six weeks in an ashram. Very cold, the simple life and a stone bed. I travelled 20,000 kilometres in a year, but never got sick, because I had terrible discipline and always boiled my water. All the water came from and returned to the Ganges, you see. In that region, the Ganges was very narrow and full of fish. If someone took you across the river, you could put your hand in and caress the fish. The people taught me many things about botany and ornithology and discipline.
“After that I travelled south, sometimes by jeep, sometimes in ox-carts, to look at art, handicrafts, architecture. You can learn so much about the development of architecture in one little village. India had a population of 200 million, but they were all in the cities. Where I went, I saw almost no one.”
“Were you constantly travelling?”
“I stayed longer in Mysore, where I had a bungalow beside the Maharajah’s racecourse. The people next door cared for retired racehorses. The horses didn’t race any more, but they still wanted to run. So I got up early and rode the horses round the track, often without a saddle, at five o’clock in the morning before the police came to train.”
“You have an amazing memory for detail.”
“One thing I learned and I can recommend it to anybody who’s travelling; every day, I wrote a haiku. Because a haiku makes you concentrate on what has happened the whole day. It’s like Nescafé, very concentrated. The classic Japanese haiku should show the time of year, certain events, experiences and sensations, all in three lines. It brings you great discipline. And today, if I read one of these haikus I wrote over forty years ago, the whole day comes back, with the aromas, fragrances and sounds. India’s air is full of sounds.”
“What happened after you left India?”
“On my return, I was engaged by the University of Zürich to create the moulagen collection. The only thing missing was leprosy. I suggested returning to India to collect one example of each of the classic types. They gave me 500 francs and permission to go back for six weeks. Even the journey cost more! I took a first class cabin because being with other people for nine days is impossible for me.”
“Why is it impossible?”
She shrugs. “I prefer animals to people. So in 1963, I went to India for six weeks but stayed seven months. There was so much to do! I collected my leprosy cases and had an exhibition in Bombay. The most difficult part was bringing the moulagen back to Europe. In the 1960s, women were not allowed to carry anything. I had to fight with the porters to carry my boxes onto the ship because I didn’t want anybody to touch them. I won the fight and got them all into my cabin next to my bed.
“Now, almost fifty years later, these leprosy moulagen have their own vitrine in the Medical History Museum. And here are all the photographs of the patients. It’s very rare, with leprosy, to see the moulage and the patient together. I also saw some very interesting cases of syphilis. Look.”
Elsbeth spreads the photographs across the table. She radiates pride. I scan the images and try to focus on the accuracy of the reproductions. My head feels hot and my stomach queasy.
“This collection is now known worldwide as the colours have never faded, due to the special recipe for the mixture. We only used four colours, one which came from an exotic rubber tree, and all were translucent, otherwise you cannot get that impression that it comes from beneath the skin.”
She collects the photographs back into the folder. I breathe deeply.
“In 1973, my professor decided the moulagen were no longer needed and ordered all 1600 destroyed. Over my dead body! But what to do? You cannot stack these pieces in storage, they are very fragile. When I arrived one morning, the builders were there. Around twenty or thirty of our most beautiful cancer moulagen had already been trampled by the workers. I could have shot them. So I called my best friend, who called all our other friends and they came. Weisbrod from Switzerland, Porsche and Messerschmidt from Germany, they all sent trucks to take away and store my moulagen.”
“So how did the Moulagen Museum come about?”
“Two years later, of course, they wanted them back, and now I have a museum of my work and all that went before. Lucky for them.
“But as for me, what to do? My skills as moulageuse were no longer needed. So I turned to epithesis – facial prosthetics. In those days, if people had a cancerous tumour on the eye, the nose or the ear, you cut it away. Sometimes people lost most of the face. So I created way of building a prosthetic face. It’s very difficult to get right so that it doesn’t cause the patient pain and also looks like them. I worked closely with the families to check the face was as close as possible. It’s complicated for breathing and difficult to try it on. But no work is enough for these people. I have some pictures here.”
An photograph that could be a Kraftwerk cover. Literally faceless. “He had a tiny tumour on the eyelid. But it spread.”
A man with no nose. I think of the old joke and cannot laugh.
A woman who ends at her top lip.
She leaves the pictures on the table and continues with enthusiasm. I clutch the arms of my chair and concentrate on Elsbeth’s voice.
“So the hospital gave me an old villa for my work, with no heating. It had a working kitchen so I used to leave the oven on with the door open when I had patients. My work was incredibly dangerous. I had patients with part of their skulls removed. I had to fit the mould to the head without damaging the exposed brain. I often wondered what would happen if I killed someone. I didn’t. No fatalities. Ha!”
“Ha!” I say and realise I stopped writing ten minutes ago.
“Then came silicone. It wasn’t successful at first. A farmer had one of my wax moulded ears. Ears are difficult. They have to match the other one in colour and shape and fit the face. Years later, he came back to the hospital for a silicone replacement and by the time he got to the train station, it had fallen off. My wax ear had lasted him for twenty years.”
“Did you use the same wax and resin recipe for death masks?”
“Almost the same. The concept isn’t so common in Switzerland, but in Germany, death masks of great thinkers, writers, artists are very popular. My first death mask was of a murderer in Stuttgart. He chopped up a little boy and put his parts on the dining-table. While in the cells, this man hanged himself. My policeman brother knew I was studying death masks, so suggested this man as practice. I was surprised by the murderer’s face. A man who performed such evil, yet with a sinless face, like Christ.”
She shakes her head, her eyes wide.
“Because my moulds are made of wax, the impressions come out whole, no line down the middle. That is due to my recipe. After that, I was called on to do many death masks; Max Gubler the artist, Edwin Fischer the pianist, and Carl Gustav Jung. Of Jung, I took three impressions. You have to work quickly because flesh changes so quickly after death. Each one is different, but he is one of my best.
“My favourite death masks are on the wall outside my bedroom. The first thing I see every morning is the face of a 93-year-old woman and a seven-month old child. Both contain such wisdom, such determination. They inspire me, every day.
“Now, come and look at my garden.”
I rise, as does Sirius, both of us unsteady on our feet, and follow our cheerful guide through the dense, intense tangle of foliage. I try to find an analogy between the horrors of skin disease and beauty of scented blooms. But Elsbeth is above such things. She grabs the head of a flower.
“This rose comes from China. Look at these tightly packed petals! Touch it! Inhale it! Don’t be squeamish!”
Fascinating and without qualms, Elsbeth Stoiber is extraordinary, brave, pioneering and quite unforgettable.
Elsbeth Stoiber: Born 25.10.1924. Died 25.1o.2014