Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova
Yale University Press, 311 pp., $75.00
University of Chicago Press, 228 pp., $50.00
Impressionist Still Life
Phillips Collection/Abrams, 240 pp., $45.00; $25.00 (paper)
It is surprising that there should exist no general history of Italian terracottas, those clay models of figures or groups that are to sculpture in marble and bronze what drawing is to painting. And then again, perhaps it is not so surprising, for there exists no general history of Italian drawings either. Many things that you would expect to find done (even if badly done) in the world of art history have not even been attempted. If you wish to find out about Italian terracotta, you must turn to the catalogs of various exhibitions that have been devoted to individual collections (the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, the Farsetti collection in St. Petersburg, the Palazzo di Venezia collection in Rome) and piece the story together for yourself.*
The exhibition assembled by Bruce Boucher and others at Houston, which moves on to the Victoria and Albert Museum in March, is the latest in this series of special shows, but it differs from nearly all of its predecessors in not being drawn from a single collection (indeed it is drawn from all of the greatest public collections in the world) and in the scope of its catalog, which is a well-produced book designed for an independent life. It is not the general history we should like to see, but it is the nearest thing so far. The exhibition itself is a fine achievement. After the attacks of September 11, the staff at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts thought that their show was definitely sunk: no one would lend. In fact, only one oil painting was withheld, out of over eighty exhibits.
The installation in Houston was not the best thing about the show. The lighting was overdramatic, casting sharp shadows where they were not wanted, and some unfortunate lines from the joins in perspex display cases. Worse than this because less obvious were the numerous wrong calculations for the ideal height of the plinths. Sculpture shows are difficult to install because the objects arrive from all around the world, in the company of their various curators, and must be placed in their permanent position while the curator is still present. Once the curator from, say, the Louvre has gone back to Paris, the objects from the Louvre may not be shifted again until his or her reappearance at the end of the show. Whereas it may be easy to rethink the hang of an exhibition of paintings, and to improvise, to an extent, on the spot, an exhibition of sculpture has to be planned correctly ahead—and this one somehow wasn’t.
But in all other respects it is remarkable. All of the major model-makers in the tradition, with the exception of Michelangelo, are represented, often by some of their finest works. Michelangelo’s absence is not surprising. According to an estimate by Jeannine O’Grody, in her catalog essay, only eight small-scale models by the master have survived, three of them in clay (all in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence), four in wax, and one in wood. In the same collection there is a large-scale reclining model of a river god, which was much copied in the artist’s day and after.
The popular image of Michelangelo has the genius delving with hammer and chisel into the block of marble in order to find the figure imprisoned within, as if this were a matter of pure instinct. But Michelangelo was a renowned maker of models, including full-scale architectural and sculptural mock-ups for the Medici Chapel in Florence, from which only the River God survives. O’Grody gives us Michelangelo’s shopping list for the full-scale figures on this project: 5,392 kilograms of clay, 67 kilograms of cloth clippings, more than 8 kilograms of metal wire, 85 kilograms of tow (coarse fiber), more than 2 kilograms of nails, and at least 13 rolls of string. Model-making was a huge undertaking. Some if it was purely functional. Michelangelo made models—none of which survive—in order to illustrate to the quarrymen in Carrara the proportions of the marble blocks he needed for his figures. And some of it was quintessentially creative: the surviving group called Hercules and Cacus records an original idea for a sculpture—it tells us what the disposition of the anatomies of the two struggling men would be, but it tells us nothing about the way the work would be finished and gives us no details of, for instance, facial expression. It is a sculptural sketch, of a kind that was immediately of value to fellow sculptors (and so would survive in studios), and soon came to be prized by connoisseurs (and so found its way into collections).
Nearly all large-scale models and the vast majority of small-scale sketches have been lost. The large clay models were not made to be fired (they were full of cloth and tow and metal and string) while the smaller models were only fired exceptionally. Bernini’s sketch models in the Fogg collection at Harvard were fired at a low heat, it is now thought, after the artist’s death, and one of their curators told me that the slightest handling of them will leave a trace of dust. This is why they are not allowed out on loan. When they were new, on the other hand, these little models were not as fragile as was once thought, and according to O’Grody there was no linguistic distinction made in the sixteenth century between models in fired and unfired clay.
A part of the delight in examining such sketch models comes from a sense of their rarity and their representing the artist’s first thoughts. There was a continuous tradition of such model-making, handed down from Ghiberti’s studio through such sculptors as Benedetto da Maiano, to Michelangelo and thence to mannerism and the baroque. And it was largely from baroque models that Canova learned his skills as a creator of highly expressive and freely conceived clay sketches. The show ends with a good selection of these, and one can compare an early sketch for the Penitent Magdalen with a marble version of the eventual composition.
Canova, of all sculptors the most refined in his sense of finish, might be the least-expected proponent of the free sketch, but there is a well-known antithesis, credited by Hugh Honour in his catalog essay to the Earl of Roscommon (1684), which recommends the poet to “write with fury but correct with phlegm.” This idea gets taken up by Winckelmann in 1759 as “entwirf mit Feuer, und führe mit Phlegma aus,” which Fuseli translates as “conceive with fire and execute with phlegm.” All this prepares us for a neoclassical aesthetic which, as Winckelmann elaborates it, holds that
modeling in clay for the sculptor is like drawing on paper for the painter. And as the juice from the first pressing of grapes makes the best wine, so the genius of an artist is displayed in all its naturalness and truth in works in soft material or on paper; but when an artist produces finished paintings or statues to which the final touches have been given, the diligence adopted or the superimposed varnish veils, so to speak, ability and talents.
It is very unlikely that the contemporaries of Donatello felt the same way about his genius being revealed in his sketch-models, or indeed his drawings, of which none perhaps survive. When the early Renaissance studios preserved models they would have done so in a rather different spirit, valuing the figure or the group as something that could be copied or modified—that is, as a source of illustrative material. (Verrocchio’s model of a Sleeping Youth would have been a useful studio property, and might have survived for this reason.) When artists asked Michelangelo for models, it was primarily because they wanted to use them: to draw or model from them.
These sketch-models form only a part of the repertoire of surviving terracottas. There are also full-scale clay models which, when they had been copied in marble, were fired, survived the kiln reasonably intact (by no means all large models would have done so), and were then considered as works of art in their own right. Very often they were painted, or in the baroque period gilded, and, if they were religious images, could have been incorporated into altarpieces. Secular images, such as portraits, were painted with a realism that shocked later ages, including our own. They have seemed to come from a too-garish Renaissance, and to offend against our conception of sculptural decorum. The Victoria and Albert Museum was still cleaning its terracottas well into the twentieth century.
More shocking is the case of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, where Benedetto da Maiano’s bust of Filippo Strozzi was stripped of all its paint as recently as 1976, during investigations, the catalog tells us, into its authenticity. Here is a case where it seems to have become necessary to destroy the authenticity of the bust in order to prove it—a lamentable mistake. Be-nedetto had made the terracotta, carved the marble bust, and delivered both to the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence in 1475. There they remained for the next four hundred years. In the 1870s they were sold, the marble going directly to the Louvre and the terracotta directly to Berlin. At Houston, the two works were reunited for the first time. The marble had been intended for the sitter’s tomb: it would have had a kind of Roman dignity. The terracotta, in its colored state, would have been like other surviving busts, including ones in which a death mask has been incorporated into the composition (sometimes with horrible effect) and the whole object painted realistically.
This was the Florentine taste of the time. Perhaps it was not always good taste, or as elevated as the taste of the Berlin conservators of 1976, but that is what the taste was. You can see it displayed to fabulous effect in a bust of Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici ascribed to Antonio de’ Benintendi, which looks, with its lopsided sneer, somewhat like a tête d’expression of a later age, but which was made to incorporate a life-cast of the cardinal’s face. The expression of distaste is that of a man conscious of his position, who is nevertheless allowing himself to have his features greased, tubes stuck up his nostrils, and wet plaster flicked at him: a humiliation for anyone in any period.
If there are offenses against taste, which have to be acknowledged and understood before we entirely enjoy these terracottas, so too are there offenses against genre. If you believe that, in order to count as art, a terracotta ought to have a matte, biscuit-colored, unglazed surface, you would be at the wrong exhibition (you were thinking of French terracottas of the eighteenth century). The Florentines also liked to glaze their terracottas in several colors, besides the incomparable blue and white glazes associated with Luca della Robbia. Such sculptures could be incorporated into architectural schemes. They could only be made in sections of a size limited by the practicalities of the furnace and of clay modeling itself. However such sections could be assembled in order to make street shrines as large as a large painted altarpiece.
If you believe that once baked clay is glazed it is banished from the category of art and dismissed to the ceramic department, then again much that belongs to the history of Italian terracotta will not count for you as art. For it is “transgressive,” without apparently noticing its many transgressions. Boucher’s introduction provides illustrations of some of these transgressive ensembles, including the fascinating chapels from the Sacro Monte di Varallo, in which groups of life-sized modeled figures are set against backgrounds of painted, illusionistic fresco. These are mixed-media installations that seem to have wandered into the wrong show. But they are not in the wrong show at all: they are rare surviving examples of what was once typical of the visual world of Italy—in their mixture of media they resemble, for instance, those great temporary shows put on for triumphal entries or state funerals or various festivities, for which sculptures were made in perishable materials, paintings painted, buildings swathed in cloth, pageants devised.
Where this has perished entirely (in the way carnival floats are expected to perish), or where it survives only in drawings and engravings and written accounts, nothing can be done about the matter. But where elements have amazingly survived, as in the wonderful Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Niccolò dell’Arca in Bologna, one can but be grateful and pleased. The Neapolitan presepio or Christmas crêche is not an example of an eccentric local specialty or provincial tradition. It is one surviving expression of that carnivalesque spirit in Italian art.
One might expect that, in a contemporary art world in which the multi-media installation is the norm, and where no medium is considered too base, no surface too flashy for the art object, a kind of consideration—tolerance, even—might be extended backward in history, to include such startling objects as Pietro Bracci’s painted terracotta bust of Pope Benedict XIII, which Boucher in his note coolly compares to the caricature pen sketches by Bernini and Pier Leone Ghezzi. It is true that this bust resembles a caricature, and might be taken for one, had it not been placed beside a larger marble bust which shows that the artist was in earnest, and this huge nose, this awful downward-curving mouth in its expression of settled displeasure did indeed represent a likeness—an acceptable, official likeness—of the pope in question. We remain, however, capable of being shocked at the ability of the eighteenth century to tolerate a level of realism which would probably appall the church in Rome today.
We move from the kind of show in which we might expect to encounter Pietro Bracci into one where, as at the Hirshhorn in Washington, a glistening model by Jeff Koons or a grotesquely executed, superrealistically airbrushed Large Man by Ron Mueck await us as examples of the contemporary transgressive. Perhaps it would be better to decide that the two worlds have nothing to do with each other. But if we stick for the moment with the idea that art in one venue bears some relation to that in the other (which is what the Hirshhorn begs us to do, with its highly representative collection of sculpture linking the European tradition to that of modernism and beyond), then we should at least be prepared to allow the transgressions of the past, before indulging those of the present.
We come to Juan Muñoz, the Spanish artist born in 1953, something of a late developer and, alas, a premature concluder, who suddenly died of an aneurysm last summer while this retrospective was in preparation, and having just completed a large installation at Tate Modern. Visitors to the Hirshhorn over the last few years will remember (for it is one of those works of public sculpture that is easily memorable) his group of strange wobbly-men with punch-bag bodies, titled Last Conversation Piece, which the museum acquired in 1995.
The recent show, which moves to Los Angeles in April, was joined by five of his other “conversation pieces” of similar character: perhaps it was an invention which the artist realized had the potential for too much easy success. He killed it off, anyway, before it grew repetitive. At Tate Britain another of his groups of figures, Towards the Corner, has proved popular. It consists of a group of smiling or laughing Asian men sitting on a wooden stand as if watching some game, but their cast faces all have closed eyes, and there is certainly no way we are going to be let in on whatever joke has amused them. A group seated in armchairs of which one figure turns to look at his reflection in a large glass mirror that hangs tilted behind him finds a slick way of introducing alternative viewpoints and framing the group.
Is the whole thing too winsome? Is charm a little too high among the artist’s priorities? The groups depend for their effect on their indecipherability—were that to go, the charm might well be broken, as it can be when we look at a hurrying figure by Giacometti and find ourselves perhaps less than curious.
That Muñoz found a thing to do which made his work instantly recognizable and, as I have said, memorable is surely the first step to something, and as such no small achievement. He must also have been blessed, one deduces from the catalog, with a degree of creative chutzpah. He was late in putting himself forward, but, when he did so, it is not as if he had all that much to put forward, other than his promise and his confidence. He ended up with little more than a decade and a half of characteristic work.
In an interview he can talk as vapidly as his interviewer, Paul Schimmel. He says:
I think that a great painting is also a great fabrication. What you’re looking at is an illusion. Beginning in the Renaissance, the great masters invented something that did not exist in space. And I think that marks the big change from Giotto to us. This is our great tradition: the creation of space in painting. Historically, sculpture has suffered tremendously because it has not activated space in the way that painting has. It’s only with modernism, and with artists such as Robert Smithson and Richard Serra, that sculpture finds its central voice, because space is activated.
One thinks, well, it is good that Giotto has not been forgotten, but what a pity that Bernini, for instance, has not even been noticed. Or what a pity that the great chapel in the Escorial, where the bronze figures of the royal family inhabit and dominate the space in a style you might think would have appealed to Muñoz, what a pity this kind of art gets ruled out—perhaps as a category. Giotto dies, and we have to wait for Richard Serra to discover sculptural space. Are we really expected to assent to this and retain any self-respect?
At the Phillips Collection in Washington, an impressionist blockbusterette. I went twice, and twice resented the bottleneck that inevitably forms in the early galleries, where the crowd is still in the throes of the headphones. What quality of experience is expected as we confront, say, a white cup and saucer by Fantin-Latour, in a museum that is simply not designed to accommodate a crowd? Must we learn greater patience as we wait our turn—is that what the show is about? “It doesn’t take much,” says Jeannene M. Pryblyski in her catalog essay,
to imagine Fantin-Latour sitting quietly before his solitary white cup, and then gently laying a spoon on the saucer, just so. Now imagine him picking up a brush and beginning to build the white cup out of touches of paint applied with similar patience. Then take your place at the table, and see Fantin-Latour’s painted cup as the evidence of a deeply human process of seeing and shaping….
Yes! Yes! I could see all this, or I could imagine that I could see all this—it doesn’t seem very complicated after all—if only there were somewhere to stand.
There are many beautiful paintings in the show, which is worth catching in Boston (opening in late February) for the numerous works that come from private collections, including a hefty representation of Caillebotte’s oeuvre. Note that the colors of Van Gogh’s roses have so changed that we are really looking at an unintended overall effect, whereas the colors in Fantin-Latour’s flower-pieces usually convince me, rightly or wrongly, that if I wanted to replicate that exact arrangement I could still do so. It is the same with Manet’s white peonies: I could track down the precise variety he used. Indeed, I intend to do just that, this summer.
See Charles Avery and Alastair Laing, Fingerprints of the Artist: European Terracotta Sculpture from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection (Harvard University Press, 1981). For St. Petersburg, see From the Sculptor's Hand: Italian Baroque Terracottas from the State Hermitage Museum, edited by Ian Wardopper (Art Institute of Chicago, 1998). For the Rome collection, see Sculture in terracotta del Barocco Romano: Bozzetti e modelli del Museo nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, edited by Maria Giulia Barberini (Rome: Fratelli Palombi, 1991).↩
See Charles Avery and Alastair Laing, Fingerprints of the Artist: European Terracotta Sculpture from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection (Harvard University Press, 1981). For St. Petersburg, see From the Sculptor’s Hand: Italian Baroque Terracottas from the State Hermitage Museum, edited by Ian Wardopper (Art Institute of Chicago, 1998). For the Rome collection, see Sculture in terracotta del Barocco Romano: Bozzetti e modelli del Museo nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, edited by Maria Giulia Barberini (Rome: Fratelli Palombi, 1991).↩