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
1869
State Library of Victoria
http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/127359

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
1948
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/454.2001/

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 (http://www.bendigoartgallery.com.au/Exhibitions/Forthcoming_Exhibitions/The_Body_Beautiful_in_Ancient_Greece). That’s less than 900 km from here…

References

Baker, M (1982) The History of the Cast Courts Victoria and Albert Museum [online] Available from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-cast-courts/ (Accessed 25-May-2014)

Harvard Art Museums (2014) “A Lesson in Looking” Harvard Art Museums blog 22-Apr-2014 [online] Available at http://magazine.harvardartmuseums.org/article/2014/04/22/lesson-looking (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 http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-86/t1-g-t4.html (Accessed 24-May-2014)

van Gogh, V (1882) To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Friday, 21 April 1882. [online] Available from http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let219/letter.html (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

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Fabulous figure sculpting workshop with Kassandra Bossell!

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