Online Review: Book

Plaster Casts: Making, Collecting and Displaying from Classical Antiquity to the Present

Rune Frederiksen and Eckart Marchand, eds.


Reviewed by Michael Fotiadis

Transformationen der Antike 18. Pp. xii + 752, figs. 339, color pls. 32. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2010. $129.95. ISBN 978-3-11-020856-6 (cloth).

I opened this book with the expectation that it would be about, at least principally, plaster casts of classical antiquity's statuary (e.g., Roman, Greek, Near Eastern). Wrong! The volume—36 papers, originally delivered at a conference organized by the editors and Donna Kurtz and held in Oxford in 2007—has in fact a much broader scope. Plaster has been used for making images and models of just about everything, from human figures to mushrooms, from death masks to mathematical models, from a peasant's crippled hand to Michelangelo's David, and the casts have served religious, scientific, artistic, pedagogical, and many other purposes (e.g., as substitutes for renowned artworks made of more precious materials, or just as curiosities worth collecting). The book under review is not about all of those kinds of casts (mushrooms and mathematical models are only mentioned in the last contribution [647]; the crippled hand is mentioned in the volume's introduction [4]), but it "deliberately focuses on plaster casts for artistic ends" (10). That turns out to include works that may not have been received as art when they were created (e.g., the colorful plaster reliefs in the Church of Our Lady in Halberstadt, Saxony-Anhalt, executed ca. 1200 C.E., which are expertly discussed in the book by their 21st-century conservators). No paper, however, deals with casts of artworks from outside the European tradition (e.g., the casts from Angkor Wat, first shown in Paris in 1878; the casts of Maya and Aztec art in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University).

The volume includes sections on classical antiquity, on the Renaissance, on the making and distribution of casts since the 18th century, as well as separate sections on casts in various contexts during the last 250 years (in art academies, artists' workshops, museums). It also includes a section on lessons learned from the conservation of casts, while collections of gem impressions are treated in yet another section along with architectural models. Given the size of the book, my task—and the task of the reader—would have been easier if the individual papers had been consecutively numbered. (Strangely, the color plates in the back of the book are numbered in a way that presupposes the consecutive numbering of the papers; but try to go from the plates to the papers, and you will find it rather laborious.) The first two papers concern the use of plaster casts in classical antiquity, and one of them (Frederiksen) includes a list of surviving ancient pieces, save for those of Baiae, which are compared with Roman marble statues in the other paper (Landwehr). The paper on the Halberstadt reliefs (D. Arnold, T. Arnold, and Rüber-Schütte), mentioned above, is the only one devoted to medieval material, but Marchand discusses continuities from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance in another contribution, which surveys the uses of plaster in Renaissance Italy. A second paper on Renaissance practices (Cupperi) traces the 16th-century beginnings of the production of casts of antique sculptures for royal clients located beyond the Alps and the spread of the taste for plaster casts (substituting for ancient originals and bronze casts). The Renaissance section ends with a new paper on the stucco decorations of Nonsuch Palace, contributed by Biddle, the excavator and long-time researcher of the ruins of Nonsuch.

Most of the papers pertain to post-Renaissance times, especially to the period from ca. 1750 to the present. An impressive variety of topics is treated, and the papers are accordingly arranged in thematic sections, as mentioned above. I give here a partial list of topics, while retaining the order in which the papers appear in the book:

  1. The nature of the market for casts of antique works in Germany during the 18th century and up to the founding of the Berlin Gipsformerei in 1819 (Schreiter).
  2. The career of a family of plaster cast makers in London from the late 19th century to the dissolution of their business in the 1950s (Malone).
  3. The history and uses of the plaster cast collection in the Berlin Academy of Arts in the period 1790–1815, with a 14-page appendix listing all works owned by the academy at that time (Sedlarz).
  4. The development of the cast collection of the Academy of San Carlos (Mexico City) from 1791 to the present in relation to changing conceptions of the utility of casts for artists' training (Fuentes Rojas).
  5. Depictions of 17th- and 18th-century artists' studios that contain plaster models (Lock).
  6. Canova's technical innovation of casting his models in plaster from molds taken from original clay models (Myssok).
  7. The significance of plaster in the career of Francis Chantrey and how his plaster casts came, by the time of the sculptor's death in 1841, to be regarded as originals (Sullivan).
  8. Live body molding, with special reference to Adèle d'Affry's Pythia (installed since 1875 in the foyer of the Opera Garnier), a bronze piece cast from molds of the artist's own body (Corpataux).
  9. Plaster in the work of Medardo Rosso (1858–1928) and his provocative uses of the material in original artworks, often in combination with wax and even with bronze (Hecker).
  10. The revived interest in plaster casting among contemporary artists, epitomized by the monumental-scale projects of Rachel Whiteread since the 1990s (Malvern).
  11. The "biographies" of the Hercules and Flora Farnese, two of approximately 45 plaster casts of ancient statues that Diego Velasquez obtained from Rome in the 1650s for the king of Spain, as those biographies emerged in the course of conservation of the statues in recent years (Solís Parra, Gasca Miramón, Viana Sánchez, and Luzón Nogué).
  12. The practices of constructing and collecting plaster models of buildings and architectural elements and ornaments in the late 18th and 19th centuries (Kockel).
  13. The collections of gem and cameo impressions in the universities of Göttingen (Gaepler) and Oxford (Wagner and Seidmann).
  14. The history of the debates concerning the display of plaster casts alongside original art in the South Kensington Museum (after 1899, the Victoria and Albert Museum), debates which culminated in the 20th century (Bilbey and Trusted).
  15. The history of the Musée de Sculpture Comparée in Paris, a museum devoted exclusively to casts in white plaster, conceived by Viollet-le-Duc in the 1870s and underpinned by late 19th-century conceptions of science (Gampp).
  16. Cast collecting and exhibiting in Prague, especially in the 19th century, when medieval art was preferred over classical art (Stehliková).
  17. The collaboration of Ivan Tsvetaev with Georg Treu in creating a museum for casts of classical art in Moscow in the 1890s (this later became the Pushkin Museum [Burg]).
  18. The growth of plaster cast collections in American museums and college art departments from the 1860s on, and the demise of such collections in the progress of the 20th century (Dyson).
  19. The introduction of casts of classical sculpture in the Auckland Museum in the 1880s and their display for many years alongside specimens of natural history (Cooke).
  20. The formation of John Soane's collection of (mainly architectural) casts and its display in his London house/museum in the early decades of the 19th century (Dorey).

Clearly, then, the contributions pertain not just to reproductive casts for display or as models in art academies but also to molds and casts in the sculptor's studio as indispensable aids or as the original artwork, and to other topics. Limitations of space prevent me from giving fuller accounts of the individual contributions and discussing their merits. I only note that the scholarship in most cases is of very high quality and that many of the papers are based on original archival research. Most of the 44 contributors are academics or curators of collections, but the list also includes several conservators, an artist, and even a collector of plaster casts. I also note that very few of the authors have attempted systematic cross-referencing (for which there is much scope), but the problem is partly remedied by 25 pages of indices for names and, separately, for subjects. Among the hundreds of figures, especially valuable are 19th- and early 20th-century photographs of museum and academy exhibitions of casts. My favorites are two photographs of the Auckland exhibition from ca. 1882 that show the skeleton of a giraffe facing Apollo Belvedere (581, 588). The aesthetic result of this arrangement is sensitively commented on by the contributor (Cooke [586]).

In its main lines, the story of the rise and decline of plaster casts reproducing original artworks is by now rather well known. But it is known only thanks to a resurgence of interest in such casts since ca. 1980. While in the first half of the 20th century, museums were busy removing reproductive casts from their exhibitions, and art academies were taking their plaster models out of the teaching studio (themes that are visited by many contributors to the volume), in more recent times, some institutions at least have been curating and redisplaying the surviving parts of their old collections (see, e.g., the paper on the Hercules and Flora Farnese). At the same time, scholars have turned their attention to plaster casts as objects of display and their reception and also as instruments of instruction and their disciplining effects. Plaster casts and their biographies are by now sources of historical knowledge pertaining to the previous five centuries; by studying them we expect to learn about such issues as the transformations of taste, the formation of artistic canons, or the economic stakes associated with the modernist ideology that drove reproductive casts to the warehouse and put in their place "original" artworks (an issue brought into focus in Dyson's paper about casts in the United States [572]). "Transformations" is a key notion here (note the title of the series in which the book is published), not least because, as many contributors point out, plaster casts are themselves materially unstable: they are virtually continually altered by—acted upon, or better, interacting with—collectives of human and material agents.

Since the 1980s, reproductive casts and their history have been the subject of many conferences, and proceedings from some of those conference have been published (for a partial list, see The volume reviewed, also the product of a conference, distinguishes itself from most previous undertakings by its expanded thematic (and also temporal and geographical) scope. It is, as the editors note, "representative of the richness and range of present research interests" that bear on plaster casts (2). The history of reproductive casts still occupies center stage, but it is here brought into contact with research projects that range well beyond it.

Michael Fotiadis
Department of History and Archaeology
University of Ioannina
Ioannina 451 10


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