When Sculpture Became More Than 'Something You Bump into When You Back Up to Look at a Painting'

By Boström, Antonia | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

When Sculpture Became More Than 'Something You Bump into When You Back Up to Look at a Painting'


Boström, Antonia, Journal of Art Historiography


When sculpture became more than 'something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting' Review of: Christopher R. Marshall (ed.), Sculpture and the Museum, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2011, 265 pp., 63 b. & w. illus., £55.00, hdbk, ISBN 978-1-4094- 0910-6

As Christopher Marshall states in his excellent introduction to this volume 'sculpture played a leading role as a means of articulating the museum's grandest vision of itself as the eternal custodian of the highest expressions of culture and even of civilization itself.' Certainly the earliest collections of classical and modern sculpture, formed by Renaissance patricians and ecclesiasts in Rome from the late 15th century onwards, reached their most glorious manifestation in the papal collections that were installed at the Vatican - in the Belvedere courtyard and the Braccio Nuovo- and eventually, in the Capitoline Museums. In these arrangements sculpture, and not painting, served as the direct link to an exemplary classical past. Archeological discoveries, antique spoglia and neo-classical revivals are central to these installations, and not simply inserted, as if an afterthought, between the displays of paintings or placed as decorative additions on furniture. Royal, princely and aristocratic galleries of ancient and modern sculpture came to mimic and challenge the stature and importance of these papal and ecclesiastical collections; to name just a handful, Cosimo I de' Medici's antiquities collection, memorably installed in the Tribuna at the Uffizi and at the Museo Archeologico in Florence; the Grimani collection in Venice; Wilhelm V Wittelsbach's Antiquarium in Munich; the French royal collections, which form the basis of the Louvre's antiquities collections; the Duke of Northumberland's sculpture hall at Syon House, and even Charles Townley's collection of marbles, as captured in Johan Zoffany's painting.

By contrast this series of essays, based on the papers delivered at a conference on display held at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds in 2007, and which form part of the HMI's series, SUBJECT/OBJECT: NEW STUDIES IN SCULPTURE, addresses not those exclusive, and often private, collections, but those planned for public access, that often were formed along strictly didactic principles or even situated within the very locus of learning. Steeped in the pedagogic fervour of the 19th-century public museum, sculpture- whether original or a copy- was employed as a tool for the larger goal of instruction and enlightenment. Furthermore, it often served as means of self-aggrandizement and barely veiled self-promotion, for the sculptor as much as for the benefactor. Yet by the end of the 20th century, and certainly in the last ten or so years, the nature of sculpture, and by consequence the nature of its display (the rejection of the pedestal, the disappearance of form) has altered so fundamentally that the chapters that book-end this volume can hardly be recognized as relating to the same topic. The essays document evolving concerns about the display of sculpture over an arc of some two hundred years, and provide a fascinating overview of how much the role and meaning of sculpture within the confines of the museum continues to change.

The volume is divided into three parts, and this provides an over-arching organizational structure to the essays. The first section deals with the museums and the sculptor's legacy, and covers topics ranging from the preservation of a sculptor's oeuvre, either through the direct intervention of the artist himself and his heirs (as is the case of the supremely political Canova); to the decision by John Flaxman's sister- in-law to donate a large number of his plasters and related drawings to University College, London, rather than to a museum; to the frankly commercial enterprise of the Musée Rodin in Paris flooding the market with contemporary casts of Rodin's works. The second section is concerned with the changing attitudes to the status of sculptures in museums, following the vicissitudes of a handful of sculptures through the waxing and waning of their status within a given institution. …

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