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Plaster & plaster casts: materiality and practice - Conference report

Visitors in the Cast Courts

Visitors in the Cast Courts

Sackler Centre, 12-13 March 2010


Plaster casts have received increasing scholarly attention over the last few years, above all in relation to their place in the history of collecting, issues of display, and the conservation of the plasters themselves. The conference was designed to go beyond the immediate study of the objects and their history but rather to address the implications of the use of plaster and plaster casts. The Victoria and Albert Museum is an obvious venue to stimulate and foster new research on this material, given its famous Cast Courts and large number of less well known works in plaster made by artists as models or as works of art in their own right.

The team of organizers comprised Eckart Marchand (The Warburg Institute, London), co-organizer of the two recent British conferences on plaster casts (Reading 2005, and Oxford 2007), Marjorie Trusted (Senior Curator of Sculpture, V&A) and Charles Hind (Royal Institute of British Architects).

One of the aims of the event was to bring together scholars of various disciplines, museum curators, artists and conservators to stimulate international and interdisciplinary exchange. The sixteen speakers, selected from a strong response to the initial call for papers came from Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland and the United States. Organised in thematic sessions the papers were presented in pairs followed by discussions with the equally international and knowledgeable audience. Thanks to the pertinent questions and contributions of the delegates and speakers, these discussions periods were exceptionally fruitful, drawing out and developing further the underlying themes and issues that emerged from the various papers as the event unfolded. Despite of its focus on the individual papers, the following report is clearly indebted to these fruitful discussions.

Friday 12 March

Session: Casting the body

This session consisted of four papers that differed greatly in their geographic focus, methodological approaches and the types of objects they addressed. They did, though, raise very similar issues pertaining to the reception of plaster and casts made of this material.

Plaster Casts and Portrait Busts: Bernini and the Death Mask

Genevieve Warwick

Genevieve Warwick's paper took as its starting point a dictum, frequently issued by Bernini, that a man who had whitened his head and face fully, including even his eyes, would be difficult if not impossible to recognize. Thus, according to Bernini, lifelike marble portraiture was not about imitation, but the art of the sculptor rather consisted in his overcoming of this conceptual difficulty. Bernini in this statement revisits the paragone - the debate of the relative merits of painting and sculpture, kicked off by Leonardo in the fifteenth century - from the sculptor's point of view, emphasising the sculptors' ability to overcome the difficulty (difficoltà) of his task. This view of Bernini's work follows then a progressive art theoretical model, a theoretical model that Warwick contrasted and complemented by drawing attention to Bernini's recourse to death masks, documented in the case of his bust of Antonio Coppola (1612). Arguing that this may have been a common practice in Bernini's workshop, Warwick positioned Bernini's life-like portrait busts in the context of funerary wax and plaster images, discussed by Schlosser, Warburg and others. While later art theoretical discourses would suppress this craft-orientated origin of his works, Warwick argues that for Bernini it would have been obvious. In fact, parallel to his teaching at the French academies of art in Paris and Rome Bernini was a lifelong member of the guild of marble workers and regularly involved in the design of ephemeral decorations.

Re-Casting Pompeii

Victoria Gardner Coates

Victoria Gardner Coates examined the making and reception of the notorious casts taken from the hollows left in the volcanic ashes by the disintegrated bodies of the ancient inhabitants of Pompeii. The reception of these artefacts, the speaker argued, was largely conditioned by the viewer's prior experience of casts after ancient classical sculptures, with regard to both the production technique involved (triggering assumptions of faithful reproduction), and the assumptions about the appearance and nature of the underlying originals. Thus nineteenth-century sources demonstrate that the casts were believed to provide powerful and truthful encounters with the ancients. Addressing the first issue, Coates pointed out that the new casts were the results of complex modern achievements that technically had very little in common with the reproductive casts after sculpture. As to the second point, the history of the reception of these casts and their presentation through literary accounts and photography demonstrates that the analogy with the white casts of classical sculpture encouraged a projection of neoclassical ideals onto these objects, that had little to do with the actual appearance of the ancient disaster victims.

Embodying the Medium: The Plaster Cast of Eugen Sandow

Ellery Foutch

Similar issues regarding the relationship of ancient sculpture, the human body and nineteenth-century plaster casts were raised by Ellery Foutch's paper. An early twentieth-century body builder from Germany, Eugen Sandow frequently displayed his body in the poses of ancient classical sculpture such as the Hercules Farnese. In various texts about himself and his art, Sandow, a relentless self-advertiser, also claimed to have built his body in emulation of specific sculptures, seen in sculpture museums. A cast of his body in a classical pose with all muscles flexed was commissioned by the British Museum of Natural History, executed by the company of Domenico Brucciani & Co and exhibited in the Museum until its withdrawal from public view one year later. In the brief period of its display, the cast had triggered a lively discussion. It was favourably compared with classical sculpture by some, stressing its recourse on one single model in contrast to the selective approach of ancient artists, and scorned by others who lamented the lack of artistic input (in comparison to classical sculpture) and/or the deadness of the material (in comparison with the display of Sandow's body in life performances). Again, the assumption of the plaster cast as a truthful representation of the model stood in a strong contrast to the complex and additive process of casting by the Brucciani workshop. As Foutch argued, Sandow himself, a keen promoter and salesman of photographic and three-dimensional reproductions of his body, actively sought to overshadow the cast makers' role, reducing the later to reproductive craftmanship by discussing extensively the complexity and difficulties encountered by himself as he had to hold complex poses, unable to breath or move while the casts were drying.

The Model and the Duplicate: Materiality, Reproduction and the Reception of Mrs Milward's Ethnographic Casts

Mark Elliott

The last paper in this session discussed a set of nearly one hundred plaster cast heads of Indians that was discovered in the 1980s in the stores of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. As reported by Elliott, the casts provoked unease and rejection in the museum. The perception of plaster casts as neutral reproductions, together with the neutralizing whiteness of the material conditioned their reception as dispensable copies and/or problematic ethnographic life casts that simply objectified their sitters as specimens of their race/tribe. This reception, Elliot pointed out, though significant, was based on a lack of information and proper visual analysis of the heads none of which are actual life casts. Indeed, they were made in the 1930 by the recognized sculptor Marguerite Milward, who had been trained in Paris by a student of Rodin's. Milward modelled the busts in clay in the Indian villages and towns where the subjects lived, and produced immediately plaster moulds, discarding and/or recycling the fragile clay models. The moulds returned with her to Britain where the casts were made. While Milward's endeavour originated in the context of ethnographic research of its time, Elliott stressed the complexity of the sculptor's engagement with the sitters whom Milward rendered and recorded (through the busts and written notes) as both representatives of their tribes and individuals. With recourse to displays of other casts by the artist in collections in Britain and India, Elliott discussed the consideration that preceded the recent and current displays of some of the busts in the Museum in Cambridge.

Session: Makers and uses

Chaired by Helen Smailes (The National Gallery of Scotland)

Artists or Craftsmen? 'Formatori' in Sculptors' Workshops and Art Manufactories in the 18th and early 19th Centuries

Charlotte Schreiter

Charlotte Schreiter traced and analysed the identity, status and roles of cast makers in Europe up to the nineteenth century. Before 1700 information is scarce, but with reference to circumstantial evidence, Schreiter suggests that already in Primaticcio's workshop in the sixteenth century there may have been specialized plaster mould makers. Their successors in the seventeenth century, so Schreiter, were unlikely to have been perceived as artists, but rather as craftsmen. Crucial changes occurred in eighteenth-century Rome where the large number of restoration workshops led to the development of a specialist workforce and technical skills and knowledge. In her discussion of Roman workshops, Schreiter referred in particular to the restoration practice of Bartolommeo Cavaceppi and to the use of plaster models as part of the design process, in the workshop of Canova. Both types of workshop contracted formatori with specialist knowledge. But although Canova employed some of them as part of his permanent workforce, Schreiter suggests that they were free to make and sell casts of sculptures under their own steam. In countries that did not have their own originals, the situation differed. Here, Schreiter focused on Germany, where the Milanese Ferrari Brothers dominated the market from 1760 to the late 1770s. Later their position was taken by local businessmen who acquired and used moulds, making and selling casts under the protection of local guild legislation. Thus here the formatore gained the status of a tradesman rather than  an artist. Techniques and skills were acquired, just like the moulds, and put to use by local workmen who worked for the traders.

Plaster Casts in the Service of Religion

Joanna Lubos-Koziel

Joanna Lubos-Koziel's paper started where Schreiter's had ended. The speaker discussed the late nineteenth-century boom of Catholic mass produced devotional sculpture, cast in plaster (and other materials) and covered with polychromy. Focusing on the area of former Silesia, then part of Prussia, now Poland, Lubos-Koziel discussed phenomena of much wider geographic significance. Far from being just the religious end of a general boom of plaster casts (to which these devotional sculptures clearly relate), religious casts in this period, Lubos-Koziel argued, form part of a wider revival of Christian art in Catholic circles that led to the production and consume of affordable reproductions in various media throughout all catholic areas of Germany. The copied originals were successful images, such as the Madonna of Lourdes, but, in contrast to the casts after classical works, the devotional casts were apparently perceived as sculptures in their own right, pointing rather to the biblical prototypes than original artworks. According to the surviving sculptures and catalogues, materials other than plaster included terracotta as well as new and difficult to identify ones, such as 'stone-', 'ivory-' and 'alabaster-material'. The boom in these mass produced sculptures stimulated increasing criticism from the same circles that had originally caused it. Critics were taking issue with the sculptures' lack of originality, the industrial production methods and their 'surrogate' materials - all described as unfit to represent a 'God of Truth'. The criticism proved ineffective and it was ultimately the First World War that signalled the beginning of a slow decline in the trade of religious casts.

Session: Plaster casts and classicism in the 19th Century

Permanent in Plaster: A Final Medium in 19th Century American Sculpture

Karen Lemmey

Karen Lemmey presented a paper on the materiality of works by the first generation of US American sculptors, such as Hiram Powers and Henry Kirke Brown. These early nineteenth-century sculptors faced a lack of accessible raw materials for traditional marble or bronze sculpture, as well as an audience that was largely unaccustomed to the western tradition of sculpture. As outlined by Lemmey, these artists regularly used plaster casts (among a variety of other accessible materials) for final works, while clay was mainly employed during the earlier stages of the design process. Looking closely at individual artists' practice, Lemmey drew out how Powers increasingly used plaster also for modelling purposes. The choice of the material by him and his fellow American sculptors may have been determined by the inaccessibility of the worthier materials (as demonstrated by efforts to find local marble and, later, to acquire marble from abroad), but Lemmey also demonstrated that plaster casts were in fact associated with democratic values. Often these associations were made by foreign visitors such as Alexis de Torqueville, who compared what he saw with European aristocratic traditions. But rather than being simply a misunderstanding of the foreigner, this line of association, Lemmey argued, did hold some truth, as the cheapness and reproducibility of the works enabled them to be more widely distributed, as they made them geographically and socially more easily accessible than works in marble or bronze. Finally, the first half of the nineteenth century was also the time when in America the first reproductive plaster casts after European sculptures were acquired by art societies and museums. Like the artists' plaster casts discussed before, these reproductive casts were displayed not so much as copies than as important works of art that constituted the western canon of art.

Mechanical Reproduction, Mass Audiences and Beautiful Manufacture

Kate Nichols

The status of the reproductive plaster cast in the context of 'original' and 'copy' was addressed by Kate Nichols. The speaker took what James Elkins aptly named 'the Benjamin footnote' as starting point of her analysis of the cast collection at Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Challenging the notion that the mechanical reproducibility of classical sculpture through plaster casts reduced the aura of the original, as frequently argued with loose reference to Benjamin's essay 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction', Nichols argued that this text from the 1930s engaged with issues that were fundamentally different from those raised by nineteenth century commentators at Sydenham. The author demonstrated that for many of them the cast copies rather increased the aura of the original or shared some of it, as display and reception rarely emphasized their status as copies. At the same time, the democratization of sculpture through plaster, addressed already by Lemmey in this session, was identified as an aim of the organizers of the palace, as they intended to instruct the widest social classes in their attempt to improve the taste of the Nation. More elitist commentators on the other hand, criticized the display especially for its supposedly detrimental impact on the perception of classical sculpture. Thus Lady Eastlake was unnerved by the display of Parthenon sculpture with their reconstructed polychromy that she described as an appropriation of these sculptures by the lower classes. The issue here, so Nichols, was not the multiplication of sculpture, but the presentation of polychromy, only possible on the multiple copies.

Saturday 13 March

Session: 'The Use of Plaster by Modern and Contemporary Artists'

Chaired by Petra Lange-Berndt (University College London)

To make my paint more concrete: plaster as painting's commodity form in the art of Claes Oldenburg

Jennifer Way

Jennifer Way examined this artist's use of modelled plaster to reproduce the appearance of vanguard American painting during the 1950s and 1960s in the form of sculptural relief. In Oldenburg's works the plaster was not actual visible, concealed, as it was, beneath the paint. It served to objectify the actual medium of painting, acrylic paint, and with it the artist's gesture, a crucial concept in the reception and theorization of Abstract Expressionism. In his own words, Oldenburg used plaster underneath his acrylics to make the paint 'more concrete'. Way argues that Oldenburg's use of the paint-relief was developed in the context of contemporary discourses of commodification, developed by Greenberg and others in relation to Abstract Expressionism. Thus it was argued that the sameness of the painter's repeated gesture, originally a sign of individual spontaneity, made this very gesture lose all its originality, turning it, as it is, into a trademark. Pushing this argument forward in works such as The Store, Oldenburg turned vanguard painting into plaster reliefs that had the material properties of commodities and advertisements.

Plaster Casts in Contemporary Art

Christoph Zuschlag

The use of plaster casts in the work of four other twentieth century and contemporary artists was addressed in Christoph Zuschlag's paper which focused on four artists in chronological order. All of these drew on the conflict between plaster casts' representational strengths and the deadness of the material which allow these casts to appear like ghostly presences and/or spirits of the (classical) past. Thus in George Segal's 'Environmental Sculptures' from the 1960s, the dead white plaster figures stand in an unnerving contrast to the realistic physical contexts in which they appear. In photographs such as 'The Faun' (2007), the London based Liane Lang emphasizes the sensuous potential of plaster casts after classical nudes, as well as their lifelessness by staging them together with life-like reproductions of human limbs made of latex, wax, silicon, or rubber, that disturb the viewer as they appear to be the extremities of a living humans hidden beneath drapery, but, once closely examined cannot relate to a coherent body. The contrast of the inanimate, though lifelike, classical casts and the apparently alive, but fragmented wax limbs produce an unsettling effect that reminds one of Warburgian notions of an afterlife of antiquity. With Jannis Kounellis, Zuschlag also presented an artist of the "arte povera" movement. Here, the plaster is deliberately used as a 'poor' material among others, but again, the fragmented casts in Kounellis work refer back to the classical tradition, suggesting poetically the rootedness of modern art and culture in classical antiquity. The speaker detected similar meanings in 'Fifa Fucky' (1995) by M + M Artist Duo that combines two partial casts of a classical relief of athletes with a television set resting on its side that shows a video of a related subject matter. Here again the juxtaposition suggests continuity and disruption between ancient and modern, as well as the commodification of modern life.

Session: Architecture and the decorative Arts

This session concentrated largely on 19th century uses of plaster casts.

Plaster as both a historic resource and a creative medium in 19th century French decorative arts

Claire Jones

Claire Jones's paper examined the wide range of functions and uses of plaster and plaster casts in this field from the initial stages of design to the use of plaster for final models, workshop training and museum purposes. Drawing on visual evidence and verbal sources, such as Roret's 'Nouveau Manuel Complet du Mouleur' (1849), Jones discussed how techniques such as the lost wax and waste mould techniques enabled artists to overcome the particular challenges of nineteenth-century decorative art with its frequent cavities and strong undercutting. The speaker also addressed the issue of plaster's surfaces, pointing out, for example, that the painting of plaster in large-scale exhibitions was not only a means to imitate a desired final material but also more practically, to protect the medium against adversary climate conditions. Finally, the case of Barbedienne's casts of Ghiberti's 'Baptistery Doors' demonstrated the close relation between art production, workshop training and museum display, as they were sold both as an ensemble for display purposes, as well as in parts for reproduction in the context of furniture decoration and other manufacturing purposes.

A Forgotten Trade: the French Ornamentist Georges Houtstont (1832-1912) and his Role in the Horror Vacui of 19th century Brussels

Linda van Sandvoort

With Linda van Sandvoort's paper, the focus of the session was shifted towards architectural decoration. Of French nationality and training, Houtstont was a central figure in the design and execution of architectural decoration for nearly all major building projects in Brussels and beyond. Plaster cast models played an important role in his work. In fact, early in his career it was a series of photographs of cast models made by him for the decoration of the Louvre that brought the sculptor to the attention of the Belgian architect Henri  Beyaert (1823-1894) with whom Houtstont would then collaborate on a number of major projects in Belgium. Houtstont made models for study purposes early on in the design process, as well as small- and full-scale models of the completed design for the stonemasons to work from. Many models for individual ornaments survive, demonstrating his ability to work in a French Renaissance as well as Gothic style. The models for the new facade of the Royal Palace in Brussels in the first years of the twentieth century had a less practical function, as they were designed to communicate to the public the arguments for this large-scale public project. That these models were made by Houtstont rather than by the architect demonstrates the direct involvement of the sculptor already in the earliest stages of architectural design. This symbiosis between architect and "ornamentist" is also documented by the longstanding collaborations of Houtstont with architects such as the Beyaert and typical for late nineteenth-century ecleticist architecture.

The Royal Architectural Museum and the Doctrine of Progressive Eclecticism

Isabelle Flour

The theme of eclecticist architecture was taken up by the next two papers. Isabelle Flour's contribution looked at the development of this term in relation to the Museum's collections. The catalogue of the Museum in 1855 listed some 3500 casts of architectural decorations, mostly gothic. In fact, the focus of the museum was on ornament rather than technology and it spearheaded the Gothic Revival. Flour discussed how the notion of 'progressive eclecticism' was developed by Architects such as the first Director of the Museum, Beresford Hope, George Gilbert Scott, George Edmund Street and others. It was developed in relation to the imitation of gothic styles, bringing together moralistic, nationalistic and evolutionary ideas of the development of styles and ideas relating to the suitability of styles for the purposes of imitation. The casts of the Museum [now in the V&A, to which they were transferred in 1916] could be used by craftsmen and architects, similar to the then popular architectural pattern books, for study purposes while it was also possible to commission casts for the purposes of direct manufacture.

Plaster Models and the Move Toward Modernity: Exhibiting Berlin Architecture in 1901

Wallis Miller

The session was concluded by Wallis Miller with a paper that again widened the geographical horizon of the session. At the Architecture Exhibition of the City of Berlin in 1901 models of complete buildings, and full-scale mock-ups of building elements (such as windows or portals) in over twenty-one rooms allowed a physical encounter with the latest plans for the booming city's new schools, hospitals, fire stations, government administration buildings, and maintenance facilities. These future buildings were designed by Ludwig Hoffmann, Berlin's new City Building Commissioner. In her paper, Miller studied the casts exhibited by Hoffman as a carefully chosen and successful means to persuade the public of the importance of Hoffmann's office and of the expensive large scale building projects, none of which had been executed so far. Miller argued that the exhibition clearly emulated the plaster cast galleries of the Trocadero in Paris and Cristal Palace in London. Using the tradition of collections like these, the casts of models and full-scale details, so Miller, bestowed upon the not yet executed works the value of originals that were worth of reproduction. The show also marked a new development of architectural exhibitions. So far these had largely relied on drawings that provided analytical descriptions of the buildings. In contrast, the plaster casts and their staging in relation to the visitors of the exhibition emphasized the physical encounter with architecture. This approach Miller related to Hoffmann's innovative believe in the 'effect' of architecture, a concept that brought together a building and its viewer, and his recognition that certain motifs only function in specific dimensions. Hoffmann's well-established use of large-scale models during the early stages of the architectural design process were another expression of this recognition of the subjective impact of architecture onto the reader, something that can be expressed through three-dimensional models to scale, but not through drawings.

Session: Plaster casts and other reproductive media

Chaired by Charles Saumarez Smith (Secretary of the Royal Academy of Art, London)

A Parallel of Charles Errard's Prints and Plaster Casts

Carolyn Yerkes

Charles Errard was the first director of the Academy Français in Rome and is best known for his contribution to the 'Parallèle de l'Architecture Antique et de la Moderne' (1650), written by Roland Fréart de Chambray and illustrated with prints of ancient and modern architecture. While this work makes the case for the supremacy of ancient architecture, a little-known volume at Columbia's Avery Library contains a further 138 architectural designs of only modern architecture, a third of which are signed by Errard himself. Yerkes suggested that these prints were made in preparation for a never-executed second volume of the 'Parallèle'. She argued that Errard, who over the two decades of his directorship had been involved in providing casts for the academy in Paris and Rome, had changed his view of the objectives of the Parallèle, and intended for his own version to provide a collection of models for copying. Thus the speaker emphasized the functional closeness of plaster casts and prints as models for artistic training that could be used where originals were unobtainable, or simply to enable their study under easier circumstances.

Plurality of Media: Uses of Plaster Casts in 19th Century Classical Archaeology

Stefanie Klemm

At the end of a day that had mainly focused on architectural and sculptural practice, Stefanie Klemm's paper traced the appeal and uses of plaster casts in this academic discipline in Germany. For mid-nineteenth-century archaeologist Heinrich Brunn, plaster casts were the favoured means to represent ancient sculpture. In fact, Brunn would not only use casts in the absence of the relative originals but also positively favour them as a means of study, arguing that the casts represented the essence of the sculpture freed of the original sculpture's accidental appearance. As part of the recent development of 'Kopienkritik' (the critical analysis of ancient Roman marble copies to arrive at an understanding of the lost Greek originals), other German archaeologists such as Reinhard Kekulé von Stradonitz and, later, Adolf Furtwängler also relied heavily on plaster casts to stage photographic comparisons between different Roman copies that would allow them to eliminated any accidental appearance through identical lighting, staging, and in - extreme cases - also through identical fragmentation. Thus, Kekulé fragmented a cast of the head the Apollo Belvedere to allow an even comparison with another, identically damaged, head based on the same Greek original. Klemm related the archaeologists' lack of interest in the contingencies and surface qualities of the Roman marbles to the general focus on the Greek originals, the Roman marbles were mainly perceived as copies. Seen like this, their surface qualities and stage of conservation only appeared as obstacles that could be conveniently removed by the use of casts. Klemm demonstrated how Furtwängler and others developed further the techniques of Kopienkritik, using plaster casts to combine elements of different copies in one cast that were argued to be closest to the originals, thus creating an artificial composite sculpture as an approach to the reconstruction of the Greek original. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, plaster casts were also used as a powerful means to represent the polychromy of classical sculpture, but it was also at this time, that the voices against their use in classical archaeology grew powerful. In a strong attack against their value as study tools, the archaeologist Adolf Michaelis argued that a dirty plaster with its darkened projections and bright recesses reversed the formal values of the original. It was criticism like this that eventually let to the long-term neglect of plaster casts as a tool in the discipline during large parts of the twentieth century.

For further discussions of the individual papers and issues addressed in them, you may contact the authors directly.

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