Archive for May, 2014

UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Visit a cast gallery

At this point I am meant to visit a cast gallery. The notes mention “cast galleries are not highly valued at the present time” and suggest that if not able to visit one I should extend my knowledge “of the ways in which these classical ‘prototypes’ have been assimilated into the art of later centuries”. This seems to have a lot of overlap to the last exercise, especially given I wasn’t able to visit a classical sculpture for that (23-May-2014), so I have decided to change the question to ask – what has changed to make cast galleries and classical prototypes unpopular?

Charles Nettleton Gallery of casts from the studio of Brucciani, London 1869

Charles Nettleton
Gallery of casts from the studio of Brucciani, London
State Library of Victoria

There have been such galleries in Australia. This photo is from the State Library of Victoria. I found mention of its gallery when researching portrait sculpture (13-Mar-2014), together with the comment “It is remarkable that the bust [of G. A. Robinson] survived to the present day. In the 1850s and 1860s, the National Gallery purchased hundreds of plaster reproductions and casts from European museums and art galleries. Deemed not worthy of a respected art gallery, many of these casts and reproductions were sold in the 1940s” (Knapman, 2010).

griffen03The occasional cast may be used in art classes today – the photograph is from a class I did with Peter Griffen in 2012, with a cast head included in the selection of inspiration items on the table (2-Mar-2012).

Some good reasons for cast galleries, from a recent post in the Harvard Art Museums blog: “Looking closely at the plaster casts lets students explore their size, materiality, texture, and three-dimensionality”; “use the plaster casts to help students understand how to discriminate between originals and copies”; “the deep understanding that comes from experiencing an object in person” and in an example “the figures’ positions and postures are meant to direct the viewer’s line of sight and set a particular mood” and finally “this plaster cast collection allows students to escape from the flat lands of the virtual world and begin to get some sense of what it is like for actual human bodies to interact with three-dimensional reproductions of the human body”. (Harvard Art Museums, 2014).

Detail of Margaret Olley Portrait in the mirror 1948

Detail of Margaret Olley
Portrait in the mirror

For art historians, there is also the opportunity to see hints of influence in later artists’ work. A slightly different example is given by the postcards in Margaret Olley’s self-portrait (20-Apr-2014) – not three dimensional or in scale, but hints to her training, interests and inspiration.

Paul Cezanne Still life with plaster cupid

Paul Cezanne
Still life with plaster cupid

The still-life by Cézanne that I annotated (30-Jan-2014) had a plaster cupid as its subject, and another sculpture can be seen in a canvas at the top – and can be viewed as linking to ideas of the erotic.

Drawing from plaster casts was for many years a standard part of an artist’s training, but it didn’t appeal to everyone. I found a lovely passage in a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo: “First and foremost, I had to draw from plaster casts. I utterly detest drawing from plaster casts – yet I had a couple of hands and feet hanging in the studio, though not for drawing. Once he [Mauve] spoke to me about drawing from plaster casts in a tone that even the worst teacher at the academy wouldn’t have used, and I held my peace, but at home I got so angry about it that I threw the poor plaster mouldings into the coal-scuttle, broken. And I thought: I’ll draw from plaster casts when you lot become whole and white again and there are no longer any hands and feet of living people to draw.” (van Gogh, 1882)

So apart from not suiting particular students, why would cast galleries be not highly valued, or “deemed not worthy”?

Having a copy means you haven’t got the original. It’s second rate. As an ex-colony on the other side of the world there could still be cultural cringe (can we mix it with the big boys?) and perhaps want to have the best, or at least something real, or nothing – we don’t accept others’ crumbs. This would be reversing a previous desire to retain links and to bring as much as possible from “home”.

However the trend away from cast galleries is more widespread. A page on the Victoria and Albert Museum website suggests that cast collections were uncommon before the 18th century. By the 19th century casts were “an essential part” of the initial collection of what was to become the V&A, and in the 1860s there was “an extensive campaign to acquire Italian casts”, but by the 1930s the enthusiasm was “long past”.(Baker, 1982)

Twentieth century art movements such as cubism and abstraction could make classical sculptures appear less relevant.

Traditional teaching of drawing based on casts is outmoded.

It is now much easier to travel – why accept a substitute when if you want you can see the original? There is also generally easy access to good quality two-dimensional images of sculptures. It’s not the same as experiencing a three-dimensional work in full scale, but for many people may be seen as an acceptable substitute.

There are so many sources of inspiration, why hang on to copies of one particular heritage? So much work has been created since the heyday of cast galleries of the mid to late 1800s, so many different concepts developed, that it is hard to justify the cost and space of dedicating galleries to copies of works no matter how seminal.

I’m glad to be reaching the end of this section of work. Unable to put much of a local spin on classical sculpture or casts or to see them in person I’ve found it hard to generate enthusiasm. However in the last couple of days I’ve discovered that Discobolus, together with other works from the Greek and Roman collection of the British Museum, is due to be in Bendigo later this year ( That’s less than 900 km from here…


Baker, M (1982) The History of the Cast Courts Victoria and Albert Museum [online] Available from (Accessed 25-May-2014)

Harvard Art Museums (2014) “A Lesson in Looking” Harvard Art Museums blog 22-Apr-2014 [online] Available at (Accessed 24-May-2014)

Knapman, G. (2010) “The Pacificator: discovering the lost bust of George Augustus Robinson” The La Trobe Journal No 86 December 2010 [online] Available from (Accessed 24-May-2014)

van Gogh, V (1882) To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Friday, 21 April 1882. [online] Available from (Accessed 24-May-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Visit a cast gallery
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project three: The human figure
Exercise: Visit a cast gallery

UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture

For this exercise I have chosen to annotate Discobolus, one of the classical sculptures suggested in the OCA course notes. There simply isn’t a suitable work available for me to view directly. This work has advantages including: one version is held at the British Museum (I can include images under their terms of use); lots of information is available on line; it is a familiar form that has been reused and adapted. The great disadvantage of course is trying to respond to a sculpture reduced to photographic images.

The Townley Discobolus © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Townley Discobolus
One of several Roman copies made of a lost bronze original made in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Myron.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The original bronze statue by Myron c. 450 B.C.E. has been lost, but there are a number of Roman copies. The one above is the Townley Discobolus, held at the British Museum. Note that the head has been restored incorrectly, and should be looking back at the throwing arm.

The Lancelotti Discobolus (I think this is also known as the Discobolus Palombara) is at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, as is the less complete Discobolus from Castel Porziano (see, or a video which shows the two versions side by side at

The Discobolus shows a male athlete poised in the act of throwing a discus. The athletic body spirals around, caught in that brief moment before the release of energy. I believe the statue is around life-size, and the work is fully three-dimensional, to be viewed from all sides.

discobolus_curveFocusing on the Townley version, since those are the best quality photographs I found, one can see multiple curves from every viewing direction. The overall impression remains one of perfect, effortless balance.

The Townley Discobolus was brought to London soon after it was excavated, and displayed in Townley’s home. It’s shown below in a drawing by William Chambers, the Discobolus taking pride of place in Townley’s collection.

Townley opened his home and collection to visitors, displaying his own connoisseurship and his philanthropy in educating the public and improving their taste. In the drawing a young woman can be seen sketching – life drawing of male nudes would not have been possible for her.

To me this feels as if I am seeing the machinery behind “The Canon of Western Art” in action. A wealthy man collects art, exhibits and promotes it, and it becomes Great Art. I’m reminded of Charles Saatchi and the Young British Artists.

In the case of the Townley Discobolus it doesn’t seem to matter too much that it started as a copy of an older work, that various parts have been restored or entirely substituted (the head and a hand are now regarded as not original), and the surface cleaned with acid, sand and brush. “This is an interesting example of a forgery being given legitimacy by academic experts, and itself becoming an admired prototype” according to Jones (1990). The Discobolus is such an iconic part of the Canon that Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo has produced multiple versions, all clad in a Mao suit (see and the page of 1997 works on Sui’s website Sui combines ideology of Western art and the socialist theory of his own culture. He includes both in finding his own, modern way.

Is the Discobolus such a perfect, beautiful, inspiring, fascinating work that it transcends issues such as originality or authenticity? Once again I am held at a distance, unable to experience the work directly. One could say it’s almost too effortless. A closeup of the toes suggest they are gripping, but otherwise the figure seems curiously static, made even more so by the perfect, expressionless face. This could well be related to relying on photographs, which tend to flatten and deaden, but the figure appears posed rather than about to burst into action. There are similarities in body position to Bernini’s David (1623 – 24;, but that is a much more active and emotionally-engaged figure. I would suggest even Michelangelo’s David (1501 – 1504);, while in an apparently more relaxed pose, is more clearly about to launch into action.

Paul Landowski David combattant bronze, cire perdu (lost wax)

Paul Landowski
David combattant
bronze, cire perdu (lost wax)

For a David actually in action – and in a pose that can be linked to Bernini’s – I am very fond of the bronze by Landowski in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is a younger David, fully committed, flinging himself down a slope, arms and slingshot at full stretch. You can see his abdomen as he sucks in air, his focus as he looks up at the giant.

Rather than a gangling boy, the Discobolus shows a young man in his prime – or rather a amalgamation of all the best parts of innumerable young men, creating a flawless form devoid of individuality. That also tests modern sensibilities. Many people struggle with body image, the desire for perfection, to meet the standards of modern media airbrushed photographs or gaunt strutting models. An interesting modern twist on this perfection is given by Quim Abella. This digital artist has taken classics including Discobolus, and repeated them in a huge variety of equally “perfect” forms – see Abella presents both genders, a variety of body shapes, sizes and colours, in the classic pose – but offers more a widening of “perfect” rather than a challenge of the concept itself.

The Discobolus also fits well with the “bronzed Aussie” ideal – see for example Discus thrower by Max Dupain (c. printed 1939) in the National Gallery of Victoria I’ve written before about versions of Australian identity, when visiting the National Portrait Gallery (11-Apr-2014).

Selection of a particular perfect type can be the flip side of exclusion. The Discobolus Palombara was bought by Hitler from the Italian state in 1938, and the link to eugenics and the desire for a “pure” race seems straightforward.

huberA similar link is drawn by Sasha Huber in her work Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz (2010), currently on display at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of the 19th Biennale of Sydney. There is a film of Huber riding a horse in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro to Praça Agassiz, a public square, where she hung up a banner and read the text to locals gathering around. A translation of part of the text: “Scientist, naturalist, glaciologist, influential racist, pioneering thinker of apartheid, proposed racial segregation in the US” (from Huber’s website, Unfortunately I chose a poor moment for my photo, but you can see the banner beside the screen, and on the other side a plinth with a copy of the book (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today. Agassiz was a nineteenth century natural scientist who traveled in Brazil in 1865-66 taking numerous anthropological style photographs, all “proving” the indigenous peoples’ inferiority to the white race. I’ve seen many similar photographs taken in Australia, possibly taken with similar intent. In the book I found reference to Huber’s “unique interdisciplinary pursuit of the origins of racist assumptions and ponders on the influence of racist representations in the formation of visual culture and media” (Machado and Huber, 2010, p. 170), and nearby a photograph of the Belvedere Apollo ( The idea of a perfect form seems so often to lead to regarding others as lesser.

gallery_sa_05Of course such a link is not inevitable. Last year I wrote about the juxtaposition of works at the Art Gallery of South Australia (see 5-May-2013). Buck with cigar by Marc Quinn (2009) faces the Bowmore Artemis (c. 180 AD). A modern beauty stands with confidence and pride in harmony with classical beauty. However it still seems to me a brave choice, a very modern choice, a challenging choice, to show such works together.


Huber, S. and Machada, M. (2010) (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today São Paulo: Capacete Entretenimentos

Jones, M., Craddock, P., Barker, N. (1990) Fake? The Art of Deception, London: BMP. Quoted on the British Museum website [online]. Available from (Accessed 18-May-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project three: The human figure
Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture

UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – The Devil’s Cloth

The Devil’s Cloth: A history of stripes and striped fabric by Michel Pastoureau looks at all things striped in Western societies from the Middle Ages onwards. For my current research project I am focusing on the use of stripes in art and on any symbology of stripes that may be of interest to an artist, so this post is not a review or summary, but a collection of ideas about stripes that may be relevant.

Vengence of Chiomara French 15th-16th century Bibliothèque nationale de France

Vengence of Chiomara
French 15th-16th century
Bibliothèque nationale de France

The medieval viewer, “particularly attentive to the materiality and structure of surfaces” (p. 19), was disturbed by stripes, which disrupted the standard reading of levels in an image. The stripe was used on images of outcasts and deviants. From this came many years of stripes indicating perjorative status.

Surfaces could be plain, patterned (eg with a regular distribution of fleur de lis), striped or spotted (irregular distribution). Striped and spotted were uncomfortable, with checks an intensified form of stripes.

Development of stripes: Medieval – two alternating colours, equal widths, rarely vertical; Later – not only two colours, not always equidistant; vertical, celebrating life after the plague (p. 42); aristocratic – sophisticated, tasteful, fashionable (p. 41). Different forms of stripes could express different value systems – if wide and high contrast, the prisoner or gangster; if narrow and pastel or lower contrast, elegance.

Early persons associated with stripes: Fortune, turning the wheel of destiny; Carmelite monks; Joseph (striped breeches); bastards; serfs; condemned; prostitutes; infirm; inferior occupations; ignominious trade; non-Christian; black Africans – servants or Magi (see for example Veronese The Adoration of the Magi, 1581 at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) – savages.

The heraldic stripe: Stripes are a basic unit of heraldry, with many variations. A coat of arms provides “signs of identity, marks of possession, and ornamental motifs all at the same time” (p. 26). If stripes are balanced in number (a partition) it remains a single plane; if unbalanced (pieces) the surface breaks into figure and background. Interestingly Pastoureau finds that there are few if any negative connotations when stripes are included in the blazon of a real individual, only a link between illegitimate family lines and stripes in a certain direction. Those created for imaginary or literary characters are more likely to use stripes to suggest wrongdoing or flaws of character.

Heraldry is a description of form rather than a particular physical creation. This seems to link with the more conceptual use of lines in art, such as LeWitt’s notations which can be implemented by assistants.

Domestic stripe: Heraldry –> Livery –> Domestic (also inferior connotation) and also–> Uniforms

The romantic, revolutionary stripe: impact of the American Revolution; French revolutionary stripe (link to against establishment?) –> patriotic stripe.

The maritime stripe: Used in identifying ranks, in jerseys, sails (a connection to wind) and flags. Then by association we have the sea –> seashore (the sea-side a less constrained venue, so can risk a stripe) –> sports, leisure and health. see for example Eugène Boudin Trouville, La Nourrice (circa 1885,

The protective, hygenic stripe: Stripes exclude – prisoners in striped uniforms behind bars – but those same bars guard and protect. We see striped pyjamas and underclothes – protection next to the body. These are often pastel colours, close to the undyed cloth that was once seen as most clean (given the source of some dyes).

The stripe and children: Protective, seaside and sports or games all lead to a connection with children. We see freshness, youthfulness, gaiety, playfulness – happy, healthy, dynamic and summer-like.

Stripes reveal and conceal: Stripes can play a trompe-l’oeil role. They disguise, fool the eye. I see a link as well to shadows, camouflage and concealment. Stripes also filter, such as shutters (linking back to protection).

The identifying stripe: athletic teams, students, corporates, military.

The warning stripe: Following the idea of the protective stripe, we see warning and forbidding stripes – often red and white. Pedestrian crossings, police tape, slow, detour, stop. Gates and fences form stripes – they are a guide and an obstacle. They can be agitating.

The stripe and music: Musicians (minstels) were travelers, on the fringes, often seen dressed in stripes. The musical staff and the strings on an instrument form stripes. Stripes and music can both produce rhythm and flow.

More stripes: ladders, railroads, the furrows from plowing, lines of telegraph poles, barcodes, combs (setting in order), tallies. Stripes are a warning of disorder and a form of putting in order.

Properties of stripes: a structure and / or a form; in perpetual motion, animating; disturbing; attracting attention (used by artists in compositions to direct the eye); ambiguity (in small amounts); passage from one state to another; intrigue and captivate; energize; brighten; make rooms larger (vertical) or lower (horizontal); create rhythm; association with wind and movement.

Weaving stripe: Claiming “striped fabric is very much subject to the constraints of weaving methods” (p.54) Pastoureau makes a link between the introduction of technology, such as spinning machines and the Jacquard loom, and the spread of stripes. I can’t accept a direct link – the technological impact was on productivity and industry, not the fundamental structures which can produce stripes – but there could be indirect impact via availability and cost of cloth.

bluelineThe bellringing line: This is my addition, not included in Pastoureau’s book. In changeringing the order in which the bells are sounded is varied in specific orders called methods. The structure of a method can be expresses in a notation such as &-36-14-12-36-14-56,12. That can be expanded into a diagram showing each change with all the bells, and the path of a particular bell is indicated by a line – known as the blue line. (Diagram produced using the online method database It’s stretching from stripes to lines, but I find the conceptual and notational link relevant.

Pastoureau writes “not only does the stripe show and hide at the same time, but it is altogether the figure and the substance, the finite and the infinite, the part and the whole”, ultimately concluding “Too many stripes can finally drive you mad” (p.91).


Pastoureau, M., trans. Gladding, J. (2001) The Devil’s Cloth: A history of stripes and striped fabrics New York: Columbia University Press. (French edition published 1991)

For actual reviews of the book see:
Fyfe, J. (2003) “The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric by Michel Pastoureau” artcritical: the online magazine of art and ideas April [online] Available from (Accessed 25-Apr-2014)

Rule, V. (2001) “Vertical or horizontal, ma’am?” The Guardian 15 Sept [online] Available from (Accessed 25-Apr-2014)


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