Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Casting Ivories in Exchange? A Short History of the Brussels Atelier De Moulage

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Casting Ivories in Exchange? A Short History of the Brussels Atelier De Moulage

Article excerpt

In the nineteenth century a new phenomenon emerged whereby ateliers connected to national museums became involved in the process of plaster casting.1 Following the success of the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, and the subsequent development of the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum), a new atelier was built in Brussels that would become one of the three largest ateliers for the production of artistic moulds and plaster casts; indeed, it still exists today. In this article, the history of this atelier de moulage at the Royal Museums for Art and History (KMKG-MRAH) is reconstructed from its beginnings and into the early twentieth century. The changing attitudes of the various chief curators of the Brussels Museum and of the Commission for International Exchange, especially Eugène van Overloop (1847-1926) from the Museum of Architecture, are reflected in the disproportionate exhibition of plaster casts in the museum at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, a situation which raised a political controversy in the Belgian Senate. The collection of the atelier du moulage in Brussels contains interesting examples of fictile ivory casts of Byzantine, early Christian and Gothic ivories (fig. 1). These Gothic examples represent a variety of specimens of late medieval ivory carving. The Brussels collections, deliberately heterogeneous in conception, hold some thirty-six casts and moulds of Gothic ivory carvings. Their collecting followed, it would initially seem, no particular plan. The question to be addressed is whether this is in fact the case. In the following discussion it will become clear that there is more to the phenomenon of the collecting of such works than meets the eye.

By collecting plaster casts of famous classical architecture and works of art, the museum pursued a programme that privileged the education of artists, architects and the general public. The aesthetic debate during the nineteenth century can be characterized as diffuse and varied, not least because of the large assortment of styles that emerged. The KMKG-MRAH took a clear stand in these discussions: only by offering as many classical and medieval examples in plaster as possible could the development of beauty and quality in contemporary design be guaranteed.

Today, the atelier holds a collection of more than 4,000 plaster casts and moulds, only a small fraction of which are moulds and casts of medieval ivories. Nevertheless, this subset is interesting because their existence and history reflects the weight given to medieval craftsmanship at the end of the nineteenth century. At the same time, these moulds and casts shed light on the way international exchanges between museums took shape. The production and diffusion of the casts and moulds seems to have relied on a real network of people.

The collection of moulds pre-dates 1846 when 'a collection of plaster casts of existing originals from other collections' was on show in what was the Royal Museum for Painting and Sculpture.2 Christophe Loir has shown that the collecting of plaster casts of Antique sculpture and architecture in Belgium began relatively late, at the end of the eighteenth century.3 The political, cultural and artistic context of Belgium in the late eighteenth century was not favourable for the creation of collections of antiquities. Nevertheless, there was in Brussels a growing sense of the important educational merit in the study of plaster casts after the Antique. There existed, of course, a strong tradition of the 'Grand Tour'; many artists from the Low Countries visited Italy to study the remains of the Roman Empire and the wonders of the Renaissance, but a considerable number of artists would never possess the financial means to make the journey, which had become an indispensable part of an elite education at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century.4

By the early seventeenth century, various southern Netherlandish cities had organized artists into academies, for example Antwerp in 1663, and during the eighteenth century a number of others were founded. …

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