Unfortunately I was unable to find a cast gallery close to me so I wasn’t able to make a visit in person. I have however visited the V&A cast gallery before and the memory of all of these enormous sculptures still remains with me. I am also lucky enough to have seen many of the original sculptures in Florence and Rome for comparison.
When reading through the course folder at the start of my course I had originally intended to make a visit to Glasgow School of Art for this section as they have a fantastic selection of casts bought in the 19th and 20th centuries for the student to draw from. Many of these casts were made by Domenico Brucciani who also supplied the V&A with some of their casts. The catalogue can be seen here: http://www.gsaarchives.net/archon/index.php?p=digitallibrary/thumbnails&subjectid=9 Sadly, since the dreadful fire in the Mackintosh building these are not on display at the moment. This blog tells something of how the casts were recovered from the building: https://gsaarchivesandcollections.wordpress.com/tag/plaster-casts/
I am unsure how much of the student practice in current teaching of fine arts includes drawing from the casts, but I suspect very little as the fashions and demands of contemporary art have changed so much.
Many of the larger casts are located in the corridors of the Mackintosh building and it has always struck me how vulnerable they are to damage. The casts may not be originals but they must still be worth a lot of money and their location lends them to dirt and constant erosion by the public and students alike. Perhaps partially because of this the casts seems to be a lot rougher than the originals. The marble sculptures have clean lines and smooth surfaces while the casts are rough and pitted and edges seem blurred and chipped. The inherent qualities of the soft medium or plaster will always be a problem with these casts and they usually have a coat of white paint which serves to protect the plaster (and makes them appear more like marble).
I’m fairly sure the casts in the V&A are much more carefully protected as I don’t have this memory of them. In fact I remember being quite overwhelmed with the cast of Michaelangelo’s David, perhaps even more so than I was when I saw the original (and the copy in Piazza della Signoria) in Florence. I think this was because I hadn’t expected to see it when I visited the V&A and to stumble across it was quite impressive. This first view of the sculpture, even as a cast made more of an impression that the original marble. These casts have the similar clean lines and smooth surfaces of the originals.
For me the more striking thing about David is it’s sheer size, it is quite awe inspiring. Hellenistic sculptors first exploited this effect and Michelangelo was well aware of it when he carved David. It isn’t possible to achieve this response in the viewer from reductions or from photographs and drawings and this is one of the reasons why the casts were made full size so the viewer gets the intended effect.
I found some fascinating old photographs of students at Glasgow School of Art which give an idea of how the cast were used in everyday teaching. The casts are placed in the studios rather than (or perhaps as well as) the corridors which shows how the practice of drawing from them was routine (1).
Penelope Hines includes a description of the purpose of the casts in her blog above:
“Primarily they are an inheritance of the development of artistic training where in shops of established Masters students would make studies of replicas of classic Greek, Roman, and Renaissance originals. Antique sculpture was seen as one of the highest forms of art thus was one of the greatest mediums through which to study the subject.
After the establishment of art schools casts were used as models for the students to draw; from this they could study musculature structures and the forms of the body.
The School no longer uses these casts for official teaching, however students still draw from the casts in the corridors in their free time and casts are occasionally borrowed by Continuing Education classes to act as models. In the past few years efforts have been made to conserve, protect and document these pieces, in recognition of their unique importance both as works of art and in the history of art education at the School (1).”
She also mentions how the casts would be a valuable way that students could see these sculptures which are from location all over the world and thus are unlikely to see the originals (1).
Their inclusions in such collections as the V&A were intended as works of art in their own right rather, so that the collection would include these important monuments (2).
The original sculptures were generally made of marble or bronze and the process of making a cast is described by the V&A (2).
“In producing these reproductions, they used piece-moulds, that is to say, individual moulds of each part of an original object. These moulds could be re-used so multiple copies of the same cast could be made. With the use of a ‘reducing machine’ it was also possible to make casts in a range of sizes, or even to reproduce small details of the original object, such as the eyes, lips and nose of Michelangelo’s ‘David’.”
These moulds were made of plaster themselves and made a huge jigsaw covering each segment of the sculpture (3). The pieces could be fitted together and more plaster poured in and allowed to set. The moulds were coated in a layer of shellac lacquer to stop the plaster from sticking to the mould. In this way the moulds could be used many times as the formatore’s (the name for a modeller of casts) were commissioned copies of particular sculptures.
This method is a great way of making durable copies which lose little of the originals initial effect on the viewer (as proven my my viewing of David in the V&A). Its a great way that the general public and students of art could see these wonderful sculptures particularly at a time when only the very rich could travel to see them in real life. I would recommend seeing the real things however if only for the feeling of excitement that only comes when you know the history and importance of the item. Aside from this, I don’t think it is possible to create an exact replica using plaster, there has to be deficiencies (or additions) that are not present in the original even they are very small. The surface of painted plaster is very different from that of marble so the casts can only ever be copies and never substitute originals.
1. Glasgow School of Art Archives and collections website – https://gsaarchivesandcollections.wordpress.com/tag/plaster-casts/, 26/01/15
2. The Victorian and Albert museum website – http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-vanda-cast-collection/, 27/01/15
3.The Classical Art Research Centre and the Beazley Archive at the University of Oxford – https://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/sculpture/creation/mould.htm, 27/01/15
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