The saga of plaster casts

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Andrew Reed, nephew of the late, esteemed Henry Hope Reed, the nation’s first bare-knuckled (yet elegant and erudite) opponent of “the Modern,” has sent in some remarks regarding a story in the New York Times, “Move Over Marble: Plaster Gets Pride of Place,” a good piece by Jane Margolies. It is about lost plaster casts that have been found and put back into use by artists learning technique through imitation. But note the snigger in the headline.

They cannot resist. They can never resist. (Besides, I’m sorry to learn that, according to the Times, the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art is not “fusty” anymore. Seriously, it was not fusty in Henry Reed’s time, when the organization was called Classical America. It was vigorous, even belligerent, in its fight to revive the classical way of building. But when did it stop being fusty? The word is a pejorative but merely means old – “stale and musty” by one definition but, says “old-fashioned in attitude or style” by another. Old is good. “It’s not good because it’s old, it’s old because it’s good” is one of my favorite concluding mottoes on email. But I wander from the point.)

So, no, as I say, they cannot resist. Well, I cannot resist running Andy’s remarks in their brief entirety, so here they are:

One of the things that greatly upset Uncle Henry was how many important museums in the country got rid of their plaster cast collections – sometimes throwing them out in the garbage. He often wrote and spoke about the importance of plaster casts in the training of the artist and reminded people that one of the original purposes of the art museum was to provide places where artists could come and sketch plaster casts of great works of art. For hundreds of years, copying great art works was considered de rigueur in the training of the artist. It was only  in recent times that this time-honored technique was jettisoned.

Personal anecdote: I have a close friend living on Cape Cod who is a talented landscape painter. He studied at an art school in NYC. He spent a couple of months copying a Rembrandt painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The process  requires that the copy must be of a different size than the original so as to prevent it being passed off as an original.) My friend said he learned more about painting in that period than in 2 years of art school. And this exercise in no way hindered him from developing his own unique and original style. There is truth in trusting in the wisdom of the ancients.

Margolies’ piece is an excellent description of the saga of the rescued plaster casts, their usefulness in learning to be an artist, and the diligence with which they have been repaired and restored. Here is the second paragraph of her piece, which has a lot more very interesting information about the ICAA, and mentions Peter Pennoyer’s role in rescuing the huge cache of casts from a dump where they had been (sorry) cast aside by modernists who don’t want to even begin to understand beauty and its importance:

But these and dozens of other plaster casts made in the 19th century from original works dating to antiquity have been pieced together, cleaned and, now, put on display in a newly created cast hall at the headquarters of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art on West 44th Street in Manhattan. They’ve made a long and circuitous journey there from their original home at the Metropol- itan Museum of Art, where they once stood in for the real thing.

Too bad we can’t do the same for the plaster buildings of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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