Throughout our lives we are constantly reminded of the importance of original work—students are taught from grade school that plagiarism is a serious offense, and are always encouraged to come up with unique ideas. So what happens when an original piece of work is so important and so compelling that copies end up in a museum? I asked five members of the Blanton staff across five different departments to tell me in five (read: six) words or less what they think of the museum’s collection of plaster copies of famous Greek and Roman sculptures, also known as the Battle Casts:
“Footnotes from history”
– Dalia Azim, Special Assistant and Editor, Director’s Office
“3-D printouts before 3-D printers”
– Adam Bennett, Manager of Public Programs
“Sculptures that aren’t quite sculptures”
– Alie Cline, Digital Content Strategist
“…Because classical antiquity had universal authority”
– Jeongho Park, Curatorial Research Associate, Prints and Drawings and European Paintings
“Great resource for art students”
– Meredith Sutton, Registrar
The Battle Casts are a collection of about 70 life-size replicas of marble or bronze sculptures from Ancient Greece and Rome, currently housed in the Schweitzer Gallery on the second floor of the Blanton Museum. Purchased by Professor William J. Battle (1870-1955) between 1894 and 1923, the casts were acquired to expose students to the artistic and literary accomplishments of the ancient world. As replicas of classical prototypes, they also serve as ideal models for students in life-drawing classes, much as they did at famous art academies of centuries past.
The majority of the works were cast in the late 19th century by August Gerber in Cologne Germany, and by the Caproni Brothers in Boston. Professor Battle chose these skilled artisans because they produced the most authentic casts of the time period. Almost every museum and university participated in collecting plaster casts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so quality was crucial. However, during the 1930s and 1940s, casts became unpopular and fell out of favor. Many museums and universities either destroyed their plasters, or gave them away (see here, here, and here), and the practice of creating these works by hand was lost.
During this time, the Battle cast collection shrank from approximately 100 pieces to about 70, and the remaining casts were dispersed in basements and storage areas around UT. The plasters were unearthed in 1977 by UT professor of Art History, Dr. Caroline Houser, who assembled a team from the classics, art history, and art departments to make a decision about how to proceed. Along with then-UT President, Lorene Rogers, Dr. Houser called on Arthur Beale, the head of conservation at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, to make a judgment about their worth. Beale concluded that they were important enough that they not only could be restored, but that they should be restored. Thus began the long process of restoration, resulting in multiple homes for the casts and continued conservation efforts, eventually landing the collection at the Blanton Museum.
So what can be said about the casts today? It can be surprising, and sometimes even disappointing, to visit a museum in hopes of seeing original works of art, only to find yourself confronted by a series of copies. Some believe that the Battle Casts leave something to be wanted – perhaps a certain sense of “aura,” which the famous philosopher, Walter Benjamin, believed was gradually lost in each new copy of a piece of art. But once a plaster cast is created, does it not take on a life of its own, and in turn acquire something of an “aura?” And further, in this time of turmoil, when the safety of ancient originals is in question, can we attribute new importance to the Battle Casts?
Aside from their individual histories, which saw them lost and forgotten, then re-discovered and given new life, the Battle Casts also share a common history with other plaster casts and with their marble and bronze originals, both those surviving and those that have been destroyed. The Battle Casts represent a traditional (if now outdated) ideal of classical beauty: the belief that ancient Greek and Roman sculpture was the singular source of artistic creation, making them pillars not only of classical antiquity, but also of the tradition of academic art and thought. Although being in the presence of the casts is not quite the same as being in the presence of the ancient originals, it can still be impressive to stand before emperors, gods, and ancient philosophers – especially when you consider the millions before you who have also stood in front of sculptural renderings of these same objects, whether copies or originals, for thousands of years.
So next time you ask yourself why plaster copies adorn the halls of an art museum, you must also consider what you believe to be the purpose of a museum: Is it to educate? To display original artwork and exhibitions? To aid in conservation and restoration? To preserve the history of art? All of the above?
That’s a discussion for another time…but if I had to pick my words to describe the casts, they would be this: “Essential to the History of Art.”
Tessa Krieger-Carlisle is the PR and Marketing Manager at the Blanton Museum of Art. She holds a BA in the History of Art from UC Berkeley and an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.