Monday, June 13, 2011

Artist's Studio in Britain (Part 3)

The modernist trajectory in art typically positions the artist as a single creative genius who does only original work and works alone without assistants. While certainly there are artists who fit this mode of production (e.g. Van Gogh), by and large the history of art production has been the artist’s studio in which assistants helped make art in the master’s name. This was, in fact, a necessity, especially for sculptors. Few artists could have been as productive as they were without studio assistants. People like to believe that Auguste Rodin made all of his sculptures himself, and photographs of Rodin show him working as such, but in fact he could not carve marble and he used a foundry to make his bronzes. He relied on studio assistants to make all the works one thinks of as "by Rodin." This in no way diminishes the importance of the work in the artist's name, however, for artists frequently had the initial idea (drawing, model, etc.), and then purposely worked in derivatives and copies for the market and for patrons. Once the viewer realizes this, the modernist trajectory of the single artist working alone becomes an anomaly, not the standard of art historical practice.

Sculptors had large studios and numerous assistants, and during the seminar last week we had 3 sessions on sculptural production, led by Martina Droth and Sarah Turner (Lecturer, Univ. York). In the painting you see above by Mary Moser, the sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823) is seen wearing the clothes of a gentleman, but modelling in clay a poetic subject based on antiquity (image: YCBA). This picture was painted upon his return from a 10-year sojourn in Rome. He brought back with him Italians who were experts in marble carving and thus established a commercially successful studio in London that specialized in figures after the antique and portrait busts of contemporaries that were purchased and collected like baseball cards (well, expensive baseball cards). In sculptural practice, Nollekens and others would make the clay model. Assistants would then enlarge it and use it to make a plaster mold. A plaster cast then would be made, and from this assistants would transfer the plaster into marble. The sculptor typically did the finishing touches on the finished statue. It may read straight-forward in print, but in fact it was a long, laborious task that one realizes never could have been done by the individual working alone. Direct carving in stone, however, for 20th-century sculptors like Eric Gill and Barbara Hepworth, became a purposeful transition to a modern mode of production, although it is worth noting that even Hepworth had studio assistants later in life, a fact she herself tried to deny in the modernist search for individuality. This is just talking about stone carving. Let's not even get started on bronzes, which are a whole other ball of wax ("lost wax technique" in fact!).

The above image of Nollekens, however, also touches upon another topic that we discussed during the seminar: the artist him/herself. There are a surprising number of painters and sculptors who depicted themselves as subjects or were represented by others. Some are shown at work, by direct observation or as an imaginary subject. Other times, however, these artists are shown simply as individuals, leisurely artists whose paintings and sculptures surround them as if to suggest they were geniuses who made art happen without any sense of labor whatsoever. Such is the case for many late Victorian artists such as Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Millais and so on. Chloe Portugeis (PhD Candidate, Yale) gave a session on photographic representations of these artists published in journals such as The Strand and The Magazine of Art, noting in particular the conflation between their studios and palatial homes (e.g. Leighton House, about which I’ve blogged before) and how these men came to be seen as celebrities in their own right.

On Friday, the participants gave brief presentations that related to works in the YCBA collection and/or their dissertation topics. Working in the study room, Esther Chadwick (Yale) spoke about the printmaker’s studio practice, Alexandra Courtois de Vi├žose (Berkeley) spoke about published editions of Lady Hamilton’s theatrical poses, Roo Gunzi (Courtauld) spoke about artists working outdoors and tied this to her dissertation on the Newlyn artist Stanhope Forbes, and Benedicte Miyamato Pavot (Paris) spoke on 18th-century artists' trade cards which were used to advertise themselves as art instructors. In the galleries, John Cooper (Yale) spoke about a bust of politician Charles James Fox by Nollekens (image: YCBA), Meredith Gamer (Yale) led a discussion on a print after a painting by Johann Zoffany on the members of the Royal Academy in a life class, and Kaylin Weber (Glasgow) talked about a portrait of Benjamin West by Thomas Lawrence. Back in the classroom, PowerPoint presentations were given by Bradley Bailey (Yale) on 19th-century Japanese prints and artists who trained in the West, and by David Pullin (Harvard) on the Stubbs and Wedgwood collaboration, tying this to his dissertation on 18th-century images that repeat in French paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and other media. I presented on John Gibson’s studio in Rome.

We wrapped up the seminar with a visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday and we had a fantastic lunch in the Petrie Court Cafe. Indeed, it is worth noting that even though there was a lot of work during the week, we also had fun down time, including a great dinner hosted by Mark Aronson at his apartment (which, after a number of bottles of wine, somehow became an international hat-wearing party...you had to be there). Everyone seemed satisfied and pleased with the week of activities, and there are now plans to continue the conversation with a workshop next summer in York, England. On a personal note, I have to say that the opportunity to meet new people and reacquaint myself with others, and to learn so much more about British art production during this period, has been an incredible opportunity, and I tip my hat in thanks to the Yale Center for British Art for including me in this seminar.

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