Art in Art in Print is an irregular, ongoing series of projects in which artists create art within the journal—not a piece of art that exists somewhere else and is reproduced in the journal, but a project designed specifically for the material, technological and social context of Art in Print.
We are pleased to present Alexander Massouras’ The Real and the Imaginary as the fifth of these projects.
In an 1891 publication the Metropolitan Museum of Art explained the importance of a “complete collection” of plaster casts, which furnished:
the best means for studying the history of art. In it the archaeologist finds indispensible material for his studies; the artist, the most perfect productions of all styles and schools; and the general public, a sure means of forming taste and cultivating an enjoyment of the beautiful.1
Cast collections enabled museums to emulate the encyclopedic rigor of libraries. They allowed them to present a complete cultural canon rather than simply a quixotic sprinkling of historic objects that happened to have been available for purchase. Art students were expected to know these exemplars well enough to draw them from memory.
Of the London-based firm of Domen-ico Brucciani, The Graphic reported: “You find their copies in every museum, in every school of art and studio, in students’ rooms, in private houses. The showroom and the stockrooms are full of treasure. Here you may see in long rows and so many shelves, statues, statuettes, busts, masks, copies of every famous and beautiful thing in modern and ancient sculpture. You can find a lovely little Venus de Milo three feet high, or a full-sized Demeter, the most majestic and beautiful thing in London.”2
But with the fin de siècle, artists—the coalmine canaries of visual culture—began to turn their back on casts, convinced, as Thomas Eakins put it, that “imitations of imitations cannot have so much life as an imitation of nature itself.”3 In modernist thinking, lived experience trumped received wisdom, and “originality” elbowed every other idea of merit out of the way. Cast collections came to be seen as an embarrassment—evidence of a fundamental misassessment of what art was—and were consigned to deep storage or the rubbish heap.
Alexander Massouras sees, in the rise and fall of cast collections, a reflection of the anxieties about reproduction, authenticity and high-cultural gate-keeping that haunt our own time. As a painter and printmaker, Massouras often plays with the distortions and accidental elaborations imposed by reproduction—a series of paintings from 2012–13, for example, focused on lens flare and photographic color shifts—and is committed to teasing out the complexity embedded in the cyclical use and reuse of information.
For this Art in Art in Print project, Massouras has composed a brief visual essay—four etchings arrayed over four pages that together encapsulate millennia of making and remaking, copying and recopying, formal repetitions and technological departures. Three of these prints adopt the peculiar, recognizable format of Polaroid 600 film—the small, square image within the white rectangle with its oddly oversized bottom margin for chemicals. (The format cites photography but not multiplicity, since Polaroids, like Daguerreotypes, are unique.) The two etchings that form the essay’s intro and outro depict a page from a Brucciani & Co. catalogue: 23 tiny silhouettes so iconic that anyone with a smattering of art historical knowledge will be able to pick out the Dying Gaul, the Apollo Belvedere, the Farnese Hercules.
The larger etching that anchors the group pictures a kind of holding pen for antiquity’s greatest hits—the Apollo, Hercules and recumbent Gaul again, rubbing shoulders with the Discobolus of Myron, the thrashing Laocoön, and assorted Venuses (Capitoline, Crouching, de Milo). Like fish in a giant aquarium, the statues’ organic forms are pressed into a precisely defined cubic space. Outside, the neatly rendered, hand-colored table and chairs quietly assert Eakins’ “nature”—the world of real things. But this “real” world is, of course, every bit as fictive as the rest of the scene. No one sits in the chairs.
The only observer, facing off from the opposite page and confined within a different etching, is a solitary, seated Hermes. This elegant, musing figure was etched from a photograph of a plaster cast made in imitation of the famous bronze figure unearthed at Herculaneum in 1758, itself a copy of a lost Greek original. A similar lineage stretches out behind all these figures—each has been similarly processed through changes of material, scale, dimensionality, texture, production process, color and surface detail. They share no material property, no time period, no spiritual goal, no technology with the things whose names we give them.
The famous Ship of Theseus paradox posits a situation in which a historic ship is preserved, but rotting boards are replaced, one at a time, until no original boards remain. At what point does the ship cease to be Theseus’s ship and become a representation of it?
Recorded by Plutarch at the turn of the first century, the paradox is of an age with the subjects of Brucciani’s plaster casts (if not of those subjects’ subjects), and reminds us that while these questions may feel more pressing in an age of 3D printing and viral video, they are essentially philosophical quandaries about how we parse the world with words.
- Committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, “Why the Metropolitan Museum New York Should Contain a Full Collection of Casts.” The New York Times, reprinted in Franklin Webster Smith, National Galleries of History and Art: The Aggrandizement of Washington (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900): 175.
- “The Duplication Of Genius: Where the copies of famous statues are made,” The Graphic 19 (November 1910).
- W.C. Brownell. “The Art Schools of Philadelphia.” Scribner’s Monthly Illustrated Magazine, 17 (1879): 738. Cited in James K. McNutt. “Plaster Casts after Antique Sculpture: Their Role in the Elevation of Public Taste and in American Art Instruction.” Studies in Art Education 31, no. 3 (Spring 1990): 165.