Mar 312015

What are the advantages of life-casting? I believe I have proved conclusively that The Bronzes of Riace are based on life-casting. Many besides myself regard them as the best of their kind ever made. They are supermen cast from an athlete around 2m in height. They have been individualized but might well have both originated from the same plaster mould. I do not believe that the heads were cast from life. They were clearly made by two different sculptors, who, there is good reason to believe, were assistants of Pheidias.

The reasons for my admiration are not just the truly amazing anatomical detail of muscles, bones and even veins but their sculptural presence owes a lot to the fact that these are put together with a sense of form (as Plato defined it) which derive from their archaic ancestors. The craftsmanship is beyond compare.

There is only one point at which the original cast has hardly been touched: the soles of the feet and it is here that the proof lies. I have only seen photographs so I cannot say whether there are any trace of the equivalent of fingerprints on the toes. This would be icing on the cake if they did exist. Normally one would not expect a cast to transmit so fine a detail, though there are instances of this.

The proof is simple:- the soles of their feet are formed entirely naturalistically and undoubtedly support the weight of the figure above because the feet are spread and squashed by his weight: note they cannot have been observed in that position as they are firmly on the ground. The soles of course will never be seen by the public so why model them so carefully. Obviously they were not modeled they were cast. Furthermore, a cast taken from a clay standing sculpture would have no soles, at most a strap or pin to fix the sculpture to a base. I know of three examples of naturalistic soles: The Riace pair, The Apollo of Piombino and the Apollo of Pireus, how many more are needed to convince the scholars that life casting was prevalent in ancient Greece?

We are told that Lysippus and his brother produced 1500 sculptures understood to be mainly in bronze and mainly life-size. Allowing for exaggeration this is an incredible production by any other means.

That the life-casts were worked over there can be no doubt. There would be many more wrinkles at the joints in an untouched life-cast. Most critics would agree with Spivey (New Statesman) that they have been enhanced in other ways as well. Wax is a wonderfully malleable material. It occurs naturally in many forms most of which can be mixed together or with oils or resins to vary the consistency from boot polish to something so hard and brittle that it shatters when dropped. Normally sculptors like wax that is elastic and has a melting point such that it becomes soft when held in the hand. Usually it becomes liquid at temperatures that do not burn but are uncomfortably hot.

One of the huge advantages of wax is that it can be poured or painted into a wet plaster mould and will not bond with it. The thickness of the wax deposited in the mould depends on the time it spends in the mould and the temperature. The flexibility of warm wax also allows more than one casting from a simple two piece mould.

In Hellenistic times founders favoured a thickness of about 3mm. as they do today. Earlier bronzes tended to be thicker as the techniques were less advanced so the risk of miscasts were greater. Most of the faults in excavated bronzes are the result of joints and mends that have come apart with time, not the result of corrosion. A perfect bronze cast is the exception not the rule. Ancient methods of correcting casting faults were very time consuming.

When I say I believe that The Discobolos was life-cast I do not mean that some model stood in that position while a plaster cast was made. I believe that a simple standing pose can be maintained with the help of props for the two hours needed. I demonstrate the process in the 2nd edition of my book “Sculpture, the Art and the Practice”. I used plaster to simulate ancient techniques, where a modern practitioner would probably prefer more flexible rubbers particularly for the chest. The process of arranging the pose in action would be done by cutting up the resulting wax and reassembling it as desired.

I think the early versions of the Discobolos though transformed into stone, clearly demonstrate that this was the method. It would be interesting to examine the inside of the Dancing Satyr to see if this method could be confirmed. When dealing with the Hellenistic period there was so much copying of copies that we should only expect to find such evidence in the first prototype. Another example could be the two Runners from Villa Papiri. There may be methods of investigating the thickness and roughness of the interior without the expense of removing the core.

A final argument for the hollow wax method would be to ask whether it would be possible to make an armature sufficiently strong to support the weight of clay for the The Kyme Runner balanced on the toes of one foot. He is 154cm high, reproduced p 27 of the Power and Pathos catalogue.

The sculptures at Olympia is the moment at which I would guess this process was first used judging by the change of style. The Critios Boy is another turning point that looks as if it is carved with the use of a fixed life reference but I do not know if there is any other way of dating it but by style. There seems to be some controversy about the dating of the two Bronzes of Riace: some see them as straddling the severe/classical divide. I see their point but the obvious fact that they must have been made for a single monument overrides the change in style for me. It is an example of two individuals responding differently to the life-casting technique. Figure B being more “advanced” than A. I presume the varying speed of assimilation of of the new idea of contraposto accounts for the changes in style in the Parthenon itself. While we have to rely on style for dating purposes these arguments will remain circular.

Mar 312015

What would happen if we came to accept that the great Greek achievement in sculpture from the severe/classical period onwards was based on life casting. Would there be a mass break-down among artists, art historians, and archaeologists? This question is prompted by a splendid new exhibition of Hellenistic bronzes at the Strozzi Palace in Florence.

Pliny told us over 2000 years ago that Lysistratos, the brother of Lysippus invented (or rather perfected the art of casting faces from life and then correcting the distortion that inevitably results from the weight of plaster on the soft flesh of the face). I published an article a mere 13 years ago, that pushed the use of bodily life-casting back to the time of Pheidias because I had found evidence in The Bronzes of Riace that proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that they were modelled over a wax life-cast. The evidence is in the soles of their feet which are formed entirely naturalistically and undoubtedly support the weight of the figure above because the feet are spread and squashed by his weight: note they cannot have been observed in that position as they are firmly on the ground. The soles of course will never be seen by the public. Furthermore, a cast taken from a clay standing model would have no soles, at most a strap or pin to fix the sculpture to a base.

This show is bristling with more evidence as most of the exhibits are life-size, sometimes very large life-size as in the Riace pair. But would one not choose a heroic scale for heroes? There is one proof identical to that of the Riace pair in the Piombino Apollo, which is obviously cast from a child. This pseudo archaic work was immediately questioned by the curator, Jean Letronne when it entered the Louvre in 1834. Ten years later when under restoration a proof in the form of a lead tablet emerged from its interior showing that that it was made by two sculptors of Rhodes. The poor restorer was accused of faking the tablet, there was a private rumpus at the Louvre and the evidence was buried in the archives until 2010 when it was rediscovered and the tablet judged genuine and dated c.330 BC. This sculpture has the same tell-tale soles as the Riace pair, who also get a big spread in the catalogue though not of the Hellenistic period. Yet none of the many experts who contribute to the sumptuous and otherwise highly informative catalogue mention this fact which is obviously central to the way we perceive these works. My article in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology was received in complete silence.

Surely the time has come to recognize the facts and make the necessary adjustments to the history of art. This largest collection of bronzes from the Hellenistic period ever put together, gives an opportunity to appreciate the wonderful workmanship and to hazard that step towards the truth of their production.

Life-casting is clearly a highly emotive subject. My claim to have discovered something that others have missed is based on nearly sixty years of working bronze and wax as a sculptor. I doubt whether any archaeologist could claim the same.

Mar 182015

It is the centenary year of the publication of Heindrich Wolfflin’s “The Principles of Art History” often described as epoch-making. It is worth trying to assess to what extent it is responsible for the most devastating decline in artistic standards ever recorded. I would suggest – to a very great extent. I would be interested to know what others feel. Read more

By 1915 revolutions in art were well underway starting with the Impressionists, then more violently with the Post Impressionists and the Fauves. By 1915 Cubism had come and nearly gone. So Wolfflin was not the leader but he was the leader of the critics trying to catch up with revolutionaries.

In his Preface he writes “The Principles arose from the need of establishing on a firmer basis the classifications of art history – not the judgment of value – there is no question of that here”. Nonetheless, his choice of examples and the way he writes about them cannot hide from us the fact that he was no connoisseur himself.

His first example: Durer’s preparatory drawing for Eve, I would probably place as number one among the worst drawings genuinely attributed to an old master. The pose is in itself feeble and expresses nothing of her desire. But it is in the limbs that qualifies his drawing as first in my category. There are no bones in either arm. The one that dangles the apple is particularly disgusting, a mere string of sausages. The leg that bears weight passes muster, no more; from the knee done the other leg looks like the work of a diligent beginner. Yet Wolfflin seems carried away by the beauty of it all. “each single line seems to know that it is beautiful and combines beautifully with its mates.” How could anyone take such a critic seriously? Yet the book is in it’s 6th edition and is ‘a must’ for all students of art history.

Durer’s horrid drawing is compared with one of Rembrandt’ most appealing, individualized, female nudes – Wolfflin writes “Durer is based on tactile, Rembrandt on visual values.” I have made a homage to the Rembrandt in sculpture. I would not dream of such a homage to the Durer, I would be left with a cripple.

Many complain of the loss of connoisseurship while others despise the very idea of it. Surely “The Principles” have delivered the death blow to the whole idea of discerning quality in art. Yet to artists of the past, quality of observation is all that truly matters. Instead of comparing works of art with the phenomena they represent, critics since Wolfflin look at lines as if they have a more important, aesthetic quality in themselves, that they alone can discern.

By 1922 Otto Benesch had embarked upon his devastation of Rembrandt’s drawings, claiming that he could date Rembrandt’s drawings by style “to within a year or two, three at most”! If drawings failed to comply with his pigeon-holes they are discarded. This destructive policy continues under Benesch’s followers at an accelerated rate today. We are left with less than 50% of Rembrandt’s drawings. We have left the fate of Rembrandt, the world’s foremost observer of humankind, in incompetent hands. Are our critics of modern art any better? No wonder the Art World is in turmoil.