Conference: Sculpting the Sculptor

The conference ‘Sculpting the Sculptor’ was held in Barcelona in November 2016, as the culmination of a three-year project, based at the University of Barcelona: ‘Mapa de los oficios de la escultura, 1775-1936. Profesión, mercado e instituciones: de Barcelona a Iberoamérica’ (Map of Trades of Sculpture, 1775-1936. Profession, Market and Institutions: from Barcelona to Latin America).

Focusing on Spanish art from the end of the eighteenth century until the Spanish Civil War, the project has dealt with the processes by which sculptors evolve and develop their professional careers, and has analysed the practices that result in the relative success of sculptors and their work amongst their peers. During this time, the project has established links with international groups in Cuba, Mexico and Argentina, and curated exhibitions, such as ‘Josep Clarà. Catalan Sculptor of the 20th Century’, at MEAM, the Modern European Art Museum in Barcelona in March 2016.

Whilst the project has concentrated on Spanish art, and in particular on links between Catalan artists and those working in Ibero-America, this final conference included papers on sculpture from all over the world, and sessions were convened on ‘The Prestige of the Sculptor’, ‘Sculpting Through Plaster Casts’ and ‘The Work of the Sculptor Abroad’, with a final session considering ‘Sculpture and Dictatorship (1936 – 1975)’.

In the first session, on the prestige of the sculptor, Tomas Macsotay (University of Barcelona) and Vicenç Furió (University of Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona) offered a sociological enquiry, dealing with, amongst other things, the fluctuations that emerge in the posthumous reputations of sculptors, whilst also suggesting possible ways to critique the methodology that often predominates in the writing of histories of sculpture. As part of this, Macsotay proposed that ‘biographies’ of certain genres of sculptural objects might help to enrich the dominant trend of movement surveys.

In the same session Frédérique Brinkerink, from the Sculpture Institute, Museum Beelden aan Zee in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, outlined the career strategies of the French sculptor Joseph Chinard, who worked in his native city of Lyons as well as in Rome and Paris, and was able to adapt his style to suit his surroundings and new clients. Whilst constantly searching for networks that might help his career, Chinard also maintained existing relationships through regular correspondence and by offering works as diplomatic gifts.

Two speakers in different sessions considered the role of Italians in the sculpture trade in the nineteenth century. Rebecca Wade, from the Henry Moore Institute, talked about the Italian salesmen who wandered around Europe selling cheaply produced plaster copies of antique and other popular sculptures, and she then focused on the case study of Domenico Brucciani, who established permanent premises for himself in Covent Garden and who, in showing his plaster casts in a gallery rather than merely as part of an itinerant commercial operation, helped to raise the status of plaster casts. The Italian artisan was also to the fore in the paper given by Martina Droth, from the Yale Centre for British Art, as she talked about the American sculptors who moved their studios to Italy, believing that the Italian craftsmen were superior to American praticiens. The relationships between assistants and masters in these workshops were occasionally problematic, with Italian carvers sometimes accused of ‘overstepping the mark’ but there was also the beginning of discussions which would last well into the twentieth century, when Harriet Hosmer, who had a large workshop, was publicly criticised for not having sculpted her own work.

Emily C Burns from Auburn University also talked about the pressures felt by American sculptors who studied in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, as they tried to develop a more individual practice, which was separate from what they were being taught in the various Parisian art schools. Her example of George Grey Barnard, who did not open his eyes in the morning until he was led to his work of art, so that his first sight every day was his sculpture, referenced a larger discussion about the importance of a sense of renewed vision for artists. 

In the session on plasters, Holly (Marjorie) Trusted from the V&A highlighted the influence that the Spanish plaster casts in the V&A may have had on some late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century artists, and Ann Compton from Glasgow University introduced her ideas about the role of plaster casts in the images of sculptors in their studios in the late-nineteenth century. Eckart Marchand from the Warburg Institute, London, gave the keynote for the section on plaster casts and looked at the uses of large-scale plaster casts of commissioned works, both as works which could act as stand-ins on plinths whilst the final marble was being produced, and in the cases of many of the full-height figures commissioned for Les Invalides, sometimes remained for decades until such time as the works in marble could be afforded. James Finch from the University of Kent also gave a paper on Giacometti’s use of plaster, and talked about David Sylvester’s understanding of Giacometti’s works in plaster.

Amongst the papers given in Castilian or Catalan, Fàtima López Pérez from the University of Barcelona talked about the career of the Catalan sculptor Josep Cardona I Furró, and showed his portraits which were heavily influenced by the work of Paul Troubetzkoy, whilst Clarisse Fava-Piz from the University of Pittsburgh discussed some of the questions arising from the great number of Spanish sculptors who were studying and exhibiting in Paris around the turn of the twentieth century. Tania Alba and Laura Mercader from the University of Barcelona jointly presented a paper on the importance of professional networks and patronage within the Anglo-American community in Italy, with a special emphasis on the relationships between the North American women sculptors who set up in Rome around the figure of Harriet Hosmer.

The links which have been forged with Ibero-America during this project were reflected in a paper given by Montserrat Galí Boadella from Benemérita Universidad de Puebla, Mexico, on the impact that the Catalan sculptor Manuel Vilar had on the Mexican students at the San Carlos National Academy in the mid-nineteenth century. 

The final session of the two-day conference was entitled ‘Sculpture and Dictatorship’ and was convened by the organiser of the conference, Cristina Rodríguez Samaniego from the University of Barcelona. Papers on this final afternoon included Judit Subirachs-Burgaya and Adrián Arnau talking about, respectively, the works of the Catalan sculptors Josep M. Subirachs and Joan Rebull. María José Gonzáles from the University of Barcelona followed this with a paper on Tonico Ballester, a Valencian sculptor who had exhibited wooden carvings in the famous 1937 Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition in Paris, before emigrating to Mexico. The final sessions of the day looked at the post-war period for Catalan sculpture, and several speakers acknowledged that there is much research still to be done on this period.

A number of very different approaches to the study of sculpture were evident in the papers given, and it was a good opportunity for some of us to hear for the first time about the Barcelona project. For anyone who is interested to know more, Gracmon (the Barcelona research group in History of Art and Contemporary Design) will be publishing the proceedings of the conference in an e-book in summer 2017.

Main image: Judit Subirachs-Burgaya delivering a paper on her father, Josep Maria Subirachs (photo: Cristina Rodriguez Samaniego).

‘Sculpting the Sculptor’, International Conference, University of Barcelona, Spain, 
10 & 11 November 2016.

Aurora Corio