Symposium: 'Sculpture Collecting and Display 1600-2000'

The gates of connoisseurs’ heaven opened and welcomed the world of sculpture history when The Frick’s Center for the History of Collecting devoted its annual symposium to ‘Sculpture Collecting and Display, 1600-2000’. Ian Wardropper, Director of the Frick, and Inge Reist, Director of the Center, enlisted Malcolm Baker as their expert advisor to help recruit a pantheon of speakers. Quite simply, Dr. Baker knows everyone, from his decades as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum to his present position as Distinguished Professor of the History of Art at the University of California. Thanks to the generosity of the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, twelve speakers gathered in New York for the tenth anniversary conference organised by the Center.

Naturally, Malcolm Baker’s contribution went far beyond his address book, as the intellectual programme he devised with the Frick explored four themes: ‘Wunderkammer and Kunstkammer – Mixing the Media’; ‘Garden Sculptures as Collections’; ‘Sculpture Galleries’ and ‘The Changing Place of Sculpture in the Public Museum’. In her introduction Inge Reist explained that a Frick symposium on sculpture collecting was long overdue but had been simmering for years, for the subject had seemed difficult to define, ranging ‘from kings to the foundation of American museums’.

The keynote address by Dr. Baker framed the issues in asking ‘What Do We Mean by a “Sculpture Collection”?’ Summarizing the story so far, he put the symposium in context, raising ambitions and expectations by illustrating how the history of collecting sculpture is grounded in the study of classical bronzes and marbles since the Renaissance. In the arrangement of the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino and in Rome, Dresden and Versailles, the idea of sculptures in collections became established. But the subject of sculpture as collections in the Early Modern period is a relatively unstudied field. Museums, he observed, have led in defining sculpture collections, for while most collectors (such as Frick) present marbles and bronzes as decorative arts, as punctuation between old master paintings, museums are places of categorization where sculpture can have its own gallery, especially in the new civic museums of the later nineteenth century where plaster casts were far more welcome and evident than they are today. Dr. Baker asked how today’s museums, with their ambitions to place art in a wider cultural context than aesthetic quality, present sculpture in terms of its original social function, especially for Asian sculpture. Given the difficulty of separating sculpture as art objects from other functional decorative arts, in current museum displays, the concept of a ‘sculpture collection’ eludes definition, making it all the more challenging to talk about sculpture collections historically. 

After exploring the breadth of the field, the symposium focused down into specific case studies. Jeremy Warren (Ashmolean and National Trust) shared his current reconstruction of the dispersed collection of bronzes of Roberto Canonici based on an inventory printed in 1632. Michael Yonan (University of Missouri) presented the porcelain installations commissioned by Augustus the Strong as sculpture collections, the birds and beasts modelled by J. G. Kirchner and J. J. Kändler being left white in emulation of marble. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann (Princeton) explored the place of sculpture in the kunstkammern of Munich, Prague and Dresden and how the historic vocabulary reveals its appreciation as autonomous art objects, despite these mixed-media installations. This offered a key to distinguishing sculpture as art from sculptural decorative arts.

The second day opened with a tour of the garden sculpture of Versailles, Marly and Dresden, led by Betsy Rosasco (Princeton) who reminded us of the appreciation of outdoor sculpture as part of an intellectual promenade since Aristotle, who would turn to statues as teaching aids. The thematic programmes devised for Louis XIV, Madame de Maintenon and Augustus the Strong drove the commissioning of garden sculpture. In reply, the present writer’s paper, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Bronze: Garden Sculpture and Sculpture Gardens in Eighteenth-century England’, illustrated how popular connoisseurship, promoted by the writings of William Hogarth, encouraged the appreciation of garden sculpture as art, as an alternative to the poetical garden approach made fashionable by Alexander Pope at his Twickenham villa.

Jeffrey Collins (Bard Graduate Center, NYC) kicked off the third session, devoted to ‘Sculpture Galleries’, by demonstrating how the classical Niobid group was installed at the Villa Medici in Rome and then at the Uffizi after 1769, and how its meaning changed from its scenographic arrangement outdoors to its linear presentation indoors alongside paintings. Anne-Lise Desmas (Getty Museum) then took us through the thirteen engravings of the ‘Gallerie du Sr. Girardon Sculpteur Ordinaire du Roy’ in the Louvre, revealing through comparison with written accounts how his bronzes were shown in repetition from different angles and were interspersed in a colourful and eclectic mix of curiosities and Egyptian antiquities. Alison Yarrington (Loughborough University) then took us to the English Neoclassical world of the country house sculpture gallery in the post-Napoleonic period. Describing her recent reinstallation (with Charles Noble) of the Duke of Devonshire’s gallery at Chatsworth, she revealed how it is now, once again, ‘a theatre of display of myth and memory of Napoleon and his family’.

The fourth session opened with Andrew McClellan (Tuft’s University) evoking the Vatican’s Pio-Clementino from visitors’ diaries, describing how the most famous statues of antiquity were admired (and caressed) in carefully-lit niches, before being transported to the Louvre where, according to a contemporary critic, Napoleon’s staff ‘killed art to make art history’. In their move from a private to a public museum the confiscated, classical masterpieces also lost their setting among marble tables, bronzes and post-classical sculpture. An alternative approach was taken in Munich’s Glyptothek where von Klenze gave the Aegina Marbles evocative painted historical settings. Collecting and display in public museums came up to date as Alan Darr (Detroit Institute of Arts) set out the legacy of William Valentiner (1880-1958) as a German curator and director of American museums, bringing Wilhelm von Bode’s 
gift for showing sculpture with other media to present a period aesthetic without subordinating sculpture to old master paintings.

The conference concluded with an on-stage interview: the collector and writer James Fenton in discussion with the Frick’s Director Ian Wardropper. The former Professor of Poetry at Oxford revealed how owning sculpture has influenced him, to the extent that ‘as an owner you have to change your self-image’. The conference did not attempt to reach any agreed definitions or conclusions about sculpture collecting but aimed and debated the many questions ahead of a much-anticipated publication.

‘Sculpture Collecting and Display, 1600–2000’, The Frick Collection, New York, 19&20 May 2017.

Main image: Johann Gottlieb Kirchner, Great Bustard, 1732, Meissen porcelain h.83.8cm., The Frick Collection, New York (photo: Julius Bryant)

Aurora Corio