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.
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.
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.
tel 0039-0577-948312 fax –399
to The Greek & Roman Dept.
The British Museum
cc. Sir Neil MacGregor
Nov 14th 2014
I was shocked to see that the ear lobes of Hadrian (room 70) had been ‘restored’. I made an analysis of how this portrait was copied into marble which was published in Apollo Magazine Aug. 1972. Since then I developed the idea of the two traditions of European form making: the Greek and the Roman, the latter of which relies on three dimensional geometry such as I demonstrated in the Apollo article. This is elaborated again in my book “Sculpture, the Art and the Practice” (Collins sold 7000 copies). The second edition is still in print in which I report on my discoveries in Greece, prompted by The Riace Bronzes, (now published by Verrocchio Arts). Furthermore, the Roman tradition, which is little understood by art historians, is central to my ebook on Rembrandt, found at www.nigelkonstam.com
It is disappointing that there is so little exchange between the historians and the practitioners of art that these publications have escaped the notice of your staff. They have repaired the chips in both of Hadrian’s ears which constitutes the clearest demonstration of my thesis: that three dimensional geometry was used and loved by the Romans and many great artists since (Rembrandt owned 30 Roman portraits and filled two books with drawings of them).
May I hope that the masking of an intrinsic and important detail of the manufacture of the original will be removed as soon as possible.
Nigel Konstam, sculptor
ps I enclose a brochure on The Museum of Artists’ Secrets, now known as The Research Centre for the True History of Art. I would be very pleased to show you round.
Was Rembrandt reliable? It is worth asking this question because scholars have assumed that Rembrandt was by nature consistent. Otto Benesch, the cataloguer of his drawings claimed that he could recognise the date of Rembrandt’s drawings “to within one or two years, three at most”. If Benesch was right, Rembrandt must have been consistent to a very rare degree. I find him unreliable, I agree with Gary Schwartz “the study of Rembrandt has much to gain from the serious consideration of the negative criticisms voiced by his contemporaries.” and they do not find Rembrandt at all reliable or consistent. Benesch’s error is pure wish-fulfilment that has alas, resounded with his heirs and followers.
By his study of the documents Schwartz brings into question many aspects of Rembrandt’s character that suggest his untrustworthiness. He was struck out of his sister’s will and his wife’s will, he was never asked to be godfather to a child, “he himself sabotaged his career” says Schwartz – I take all that on board. I think you will find below good reason to view Rembrandt’s behaviour as highly erratic.
Supreme self-confidence does not sit well on the shoulders of an artist. Though his confidence in his own judgement contributed to his ability to push art in the direction of truth before conventional beauty; it has earned him everlasting fame for very good reason but it caused no end of trouble in his life-time.
Von Sandrart tells us that Rembrandt “had no understanding of the importance of social rank…. it is certain that had he been able to keep on good terms with everyone and look after his business properly” he would have made a fortune. Baldinucci writes that “not even the foremost monarch on earth could gain an audience” but would be sent away until Rembrandt had finished his work. The Prince of Orange had to wait fourteen years for the last of his Passion series. The painting arrived still wet and the Prince paid only half the asking price. The Sicilian nobleman for whom Rembrandt painted several portraits sent back two complaining that he had bought work from Italy’s most famous painters and never paid so high a price nor received work so ill completed (his portrait of Alexander the Great was sown together from four pieces of canvas).
Rembrandt’s dealings with commoners took a similar pattern. His quarrels with his first mistress and with Saskia’s family after her death show us a man who was deeply lacking in diplomacy to say the least. There are stories of him painting the corpse of his dead monkey into a commissioned family portrait and keeping the painting rather than removing this nasty, unwanted addition. There are constant complaints from his contemporaries such as “he did not finish his paintings properly – it is rare to find in Rembrandt a well painted hand – his female nudes were such pitiful things that they are hardly worth mentioning” etc. Rembrandt answered these criticisms with “a picture is finished when the artist has expressed his intentions in it”. It is this clarity about his intentions and their revolutionary nature that makes Rembrandt such an important example to artists. His female nudes are not idealized as was expected at that time. They were shockingly true to life.
All this evidence needs airing. On occasion I think Schwartz has taken an over-negative view of the evidence. For instance he says of Rembrandt’s relations with his students “the few stories that have found their way into the sources are not heart-warming at all.” He also finds Rembrandt humourless and miserly. Houbraken tells stories which suggests quite the opposite to me: Rembrandt comes upon a scene where his students are eavesdropping on another student and his model locked together in the student’s room. He overhears him say “here we are naked like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” at this point Rembrandt bangs on the door and shouts “Because you are aware of your nakedness you must come out of the garden” and then chased them down the stairs with his stick, I guess as theatre, because “they scarcely had time to dress as they fled”. On other occasions students painted coins on the floor in order to see him stoop to pick them up. This suggests to Schwartz that Rembrandt was over attached to his money. To me It confirms that he had a playful relationship with his students some of whom stayed with him for many years though he charged twice as much for an apprenticeship as his rivals. There are many references to Rembrandt’s generosity in lending objects from his theatrical wardrobe to painters who needed them, in paying over the odds for works by his contemporaries to boost their value and paying extravagantly for works of art generally. When he had money he certainly threw it about. His great house proved much more than he could afford but that was as much bad luck as bad judgement; he lived through a severe recession.
Rembrandt changed the course of art. He seemed so completely immune to criticism that it might help us to understand him better to take these aspects of his character into consideration. If scholars realized they were dealing with a man who exhibits many of the symptoms of Bipolar behaviour, they might treat him more kindly and abandon their efforts to normalize him. They want him to be consistent, he was not; and we cannot understand him unless we take his inconsistencies into account. Some were psychological and some were physical. The difference between Rembrandt’s drawing direct from life and when he relied upon a dim reflection in a polished metal surface, or even worse when he relies on imagination, is very obvious but at present overlooked by the experts. (for examples, see my ebook www.nigelkonstam.com)
These stories and complaints should surely alert us to the fact that Rembrandt, great painter as he is, was not an entirely reasonable human being. As George Bernard Shaw noted – “The reasonable man adapts….All progress depends on the unreasonable man”
I am no psychologist I would like to hear what professionals thinks of this evidence. Rembrandt’s behaviour, his output, his charisma and his supreme self-confidence all seem to me to point to manic-depression.
Dear Prof. Bruyn,
I thank you for your letter of March the 7th 1988 in spite of its uncompromising tone and failure to answer any of my questions.
While I must agree that out views are incompatible I do not see that as a good reason for refusing discussion. On the contrary, we might learn a great deal from discussion. For example we believe that the world is round as a result of weighing evidence that once seemed improbable and certainly incompatible with beliefs, which were very firmly held. The fact that after 14 years Rembrandt scholars have failed to come up with any viable alternative to my third question suggests to me and others that my answer is correct.
You are persisting in a dangerous and costly course in the face of a massive vote of no confidence which I can more or less reproduce in front of any unbiased audience. Furthermore, every artist I have ever spoken to is with me, so are many members of your own profession – at what point are you prepared to reconsider your position?
I have not yet heard from Prof Van der Wetering. I still hope to receive a more open mind response from a scientist. As I am not satisfied with your answer I will be writing to other members of your team individually.
There are a few artists left in the world who regard Rembrandt as the supreme draftsman. I am one of them; fortunate enough to have reached visual maturity before the Rembrandt Research Project had started swinging their hatchet. I see it as my mission to convert as many as possible to this important belief.
The theoretical experts have, alas, shown themselves to be beyond the reach of such re-education. Let us leave them with their pathetic “leaner fitter Rembrandt”. I therefore speak to artists and laymen many of whom will, I believe, be able to follow the arguments with ease. I well remember as a school boy being attached to the drawing of Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo and wondering why Rembrandt could not do the same.
Rembrandt’s style of drawing is very unlike that of the Renaissance masters. It is very much freer on occasion, which has led scholars to speak of his short-hand, this term is entirely appropriate. The question is - how does he manage to convey so much with so little? For anyone who is not blinkered by an obsession with ’stylistic analysis’ (like the scholars) can see that Rembrandt is a master of psychological and dramatic relationships in a way that the Renaissance masters never equaled.
When it comes to studies of the nude Rembrandt usually falls below those masters who studied anatomy in depth. His interest was in conveying the spirit, mainly of biblical occasions. (He did two commissioned group portraits of anatomy lessons with scientists in attendance, and one drawing of a skeleton horse and rider but otherwise, contrary to Italian practice, showed no special interest in anatomy.) “He was taught by nature” meaning – what he personally experienced by looking carefully and with his special interest. Those of us who still look to Rembrandt as the supreme master do so because of his responsiveness to what he saw. It is the key to his genius. He seems to see afresh every time.
Contrary to the scholars who seem to believe that he drew his biblical compositions out-of-his-head (foolishly misnamed ‘imagination’) I believe he assembled groups of live actors in his studio to act out all his biblical scenes (as described by his student Hoogstraten and as a theatrical producer might do today.) This is his method; first to act out the scene, choose the moment and the view-point and then draw.
Having spent most of my adult life as a student of Rembrandt and having discovered his use of live models and mirrors in1974 I am in a position to explain why many of his drawings are ‘run of the mill’ when he is drawing from a reflection, and even less well realized when he is constructing out-of-his-head. According to Houbraken anything that was not observed from nature “was worthless in his eyes”. This statement is a very foreign idea to scholars so they have ignored it. Yet it is corroborated by many of his contemporaries and visible in many Rembrandt drawings. Often he seems to be positively making fun of the Raphael method of construction (see for instance his flying angels). Many of these drawings are no longer accepted by today’s scholars as by Rembrandt.
As a result of this oversight scholars have de-attributed over half the drawings which to me are quite obviously by Rembrandt. (I believe in about 2200 extant drawings by Rembrandt. They believe in a mere 500). Also, instead of the patron saint of visual truth that I see in Rembrandt; they see a disreputable painter/dealer (most often compared to Andy Warhol in the press) who apparently signed works by his students.
How do I explain Rembrandt’s genius? Firstly by his mastery of intimate space, by which I mean that space that is created between individuals in dramatic or psychological situations and which is the main indicator as to what is going on between them. The Renaissance masters relied upon gesture and facial expression, which are important but Rembrandt as a draftsman, though he studied his own expressions in a mirror in early etchings, rarely relied upon facial expression for his effect. He used what you can take in from a distance: the related body language, which is too subtle to be invented, it has to be observed.
How do I explain Rembrandt’s original method of drawing? It is three dimensional geometric drawing derived from his study of Roman portraits. My book “Sculpture, the Art and the Practice”explains in detail how the Romans copied their original (terracotta) portraits into stone. (see – the analysis of a bust of Hadrian. Rembrandt owned 30 Roman portraits and filled two books with drawings from them.) I also explain the difference between the Classical Tradition and the Alternative Tradition in my book. The classical is useful for invention; the alternative more sensitive for precise observation.
The Alternative Tradition (a name I had to invent because the distinctness of this tradition had not been recognized before). It is derived from Roman geometry. A huge swathe of western art is constructed in the Alternative tradition but I think I am the first to outline its special features and understand from where it comes.
Holbein is the clearest example of drawing with this method. Rembrandt expanded Holbein’s geometry to incorporate space as well as solid. I believe that this is the secret of his unique ability to convey the psychological essence of a relationship. That intimate space had to be observed. He realized that anatomy was irrelevant to his purpose. His refusal to go to Italy to imbibe the classical tradition, his independent spirit, relying on his own experience rather than on tradition is what we should value most in Rembrandt. He is the instigator of a new, more subtle tradition. When will the experts open their eyes to that marvel?
Prof. Van der Wetering, recently leader of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) enthusiastically told The Guardian (May 24th’14) that the deattribution of “Old Man sitting in an armchair in the National Gallery was “a vast mistake…it is of wonderful quality and revolutionary in a sense…a very important painting”. As one who had written to the RRP in 1988 about this very painting asking if I could come to Amsterdam or preferably invite them to my collection of Rembrandt maquettes with mirrors in Tuscany to dissuade them from this sacrilege, I was all agog. In 1988 they had refused my offer twice; Prof. Van der Wetering was a member then.
What had produced this Pauline conversion? I have just read his article in the June Burlington and have to admit myself somewhat disappointed. The same pointless and misleading art historical nonsense about style, fitting this painting neatly into a pigeonhole for 1652. If you can believe it, one of the reasons for the deattribution in the first place was that the hands of the Old Man do not match.
While the Old Man’s right hand on which he leans is fairly standard, his left hand rests on the arm of a chair, and is painted with a first-time breadth and accuracy that takes ones breath away. I and many painters of my generation regarded it as the holy grail of painting along with “The Wading Woman” (Hendrickje in1654) also in the National Gallery. That hand was so felt, it had that loss of muscle-tone, the bones fell about the chair arm as only such an old hand could do. It could not have been further from an idealized hand by Van Dyck for example. No wonder he was criticized “ it is rare to find in Rembrandt a beautifully painted hand” (Houbraken). This is a masterpiece of observation and empathy.
The X ray (seen in the Burlington) shows that the initial sketch needed but the slightest touches to adjust the top of the hand to balance it perfectly on the knob of the chair. (If Auerbach had achieved such fluency he would be dancing on cloud 9.)
Well, Van der Wetering uses the unmatched hands of the Old Man to compare with the unmatched hands of “The Girl Sitting in a Window” in Stockholm, which happens to have been painted in 1651. Such bathos! Of course her hands do not match. One is tucked so deep under her chin that what we see is her wrist not her hand. The other under her elbow, could well be sited as a badly painted hand by Rembrandt.
I no longer look forward to Van der Wetering’s completion of the RRP’s promised 6 volumes. Nonetheless I salute his courage in changing his mind, thereby undermining confidence in his and the RRP’s work. In fact many years after my initial invitation he came to me with a group of students for a whole day of instruction on the art of drawing and Rembrandt. At the time (perhaps 2008) I thought nothing had penetrated.
Nigel Konstam 24 8 14
May I congratulate Prof.Van der Wetering on recognizing Rembrandt’s prime quality, that of responsiveness, which we see wonderfully displayed in “The Old Man Sitting on a Chair” and which he has finally allowed to be considered “a very important painting” and by Rembrandt.
I have put on my blog www.nigelkonstam.com
a letter I wrote to the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) in 1988 offering to visit them in Amsterdam in order to discuss the damage they were inflicting on our culture, specifically a letter to the Guardian in response to their article “Call to bring Old Man out of the Shadows” 24 May ‘14 ioning “The Old Man Sitting in a Chair”. I was refused once (by Dr. Bruyn) but was not satisfied so got a second refusal “on behalf of all my colleagues” dated March 30th 1988. (Prof. Van der Wetering was a colleague.)
He and his colleagues have been trying to impose consistency on an artist who artists value for his responsiveness: almost the opposite to consistency. The RRP de-attributed this important painting and in so doing may be held partially responsible for the decline of modern, observed painting since.
May we dare hope that Prof Van der Wetering’s U turn marks the beginning of a return to realism in Rembrandt studies. I have ample evidence for the re-attribution of nearly 1000 drawings now distributed among his students. The principles on which I work can be found in my e-book on Rembrandt on the same website or in my article ”Rembrandt’s Use of Models and Mirrors” Burlington Feb. 1977.
Nigel Konstam 4. 7. 14