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  • Writer's pictureDr Abbey Ellis

A Plaster Tour of Berlin

This post was originally published on the Ancient Plaster 2020 conference blog. It can be found here:

In January 2020, I was joined by my colleague Emma Payne on a trip to Germany's capital, Berlin. We set out to explore the city’s wealth of plaster displays.

One of the main landmarks in Berlin’s cityscape, the Cathedral is the city’s most important Protestant church. The ornate interiors and panoramic views of Berlin afforded by climbing the dome certainly make the Cathedral worthy of a visit, but our interest was attracted by the stores of plaster models retained from the Cathedral’s construction.

When Emperor Wilhelm II came to the German throne in 1888, he had found the existing church on the Cathedral site to be too modest. He commissioned architect Julius Carl Raschdorff to construct a new building of monumental proportions, a structure to rival St. Peter’s in Rome. Raschdorff had to present three designs to the Emperor Wilhelm before he was satisfied, but construction eventually began on the Cathedral in 1894. Plaster models of sculptures, column capitals and reliefs were employed in the Cathedral’s construction and many have survived to this day.

The models are likely to have survived at the behest of philosopher, diplomat and founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin, Wilhelm von Humboldt. Von Humboldt reportedly gave instructions on his death bed for those around him to “be happy and be sure to keep the plaster models clean!”. Von Humboldt was an avid collector of casts after the antique and he also recognised the value of plaster models. His foresight in ensuring their preservation allowed many sculptures from the Cathedral to be reconstructed and restored after the damage sustained in the Second World War.

Some of the plaster models have been placed on display within an exhibition focused on the architecture of the Cathedral but many more were available to view through a small window. Although some of the models may not have been kept as clean as von Humboldt would have liked, it was a pleasure to see so many of them on display.

The next stop on our plaster tour of Berlin brought us to Charlottenburg and the Gipsformerei der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The Gipsformerei is the largest replica-making workshop in the world, holding a collection of over 7000 piece-moulds and models.

The origins of the Gipsformerei hark back to the nineteenth century German sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch. In his studio, Rauch produced casts of antiquities held in the royal palaces in Potsdam. A taste for such casts led to the foundation of the Gipsformerei in 1819, allowing collections of plaster casts to be manufactured for the new Royal Berlin museums. The Gipsformerei was one of many institutions founded at the time with the aim of promoting the arts, sciences and industry in the State of Prussia.

Today, the Gipsformerei still uses their historic collection of moulds to produce replicas for museums and universities, as well as producing pieces for private collectors and contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons. Our visit was very timely as the Gipsformerei is currently celebrating the 200th anniversary of its foundation. We had the pleasure of joining Fabian Burg from the Gipsformerei for a private tour.

Our tour took us through the Gipsformerei’s extensive storage facilities, where the sheer scale of operations at the institution became clear. The piece moulds required to produce a cast of one sculpture, the Laocoön and his sons, occupied an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling shelving. We were given the opportunity to take a detailed look inside some of the Gipsformerei’s historic moulds, many dating back to the eighteenth century. We were able to observe the composite nature of many of the moulds: often they were not made entirely from plaster. Pieces of sculpture requiring complex undercuts or the inclusion of negative space had smaller parts of their moulds made from a more flexible, resinous material to ensure that the detail could be cast accurately without breaking either the mould or the cast.

Of equal interest were the workshop areas themselves, where we got to experience first-hand the materials involved in the cast making process. We were introduced to the many varieties of the mineral gypsum which are calcined and then mixed with water to produce Plaster of Paris. Very fine alabaster gypsum is first swilled around the moulds to produce the finished surface of the casts before coarser plaster is added to form the cast’s the interior, ensuring that they are sufficiently robust. We also gained a glimpse into the painter’s workshop at the Gipsformerei, where casts can be painted or patinated to give any desired effect to the finished piece. New moulds were being manufactured and older forms repaired during our visit, their complexity a testament to the wealth of expertise and skilled craftsmanship of the Gipsformerei staff.

The Gipsformerei’s long history is also honoured by a temporary exhibition at the James-Simon-Galerie entitled Near Life - 200 Years of Casting Plaster. Near Life focuses on casting as a technique, demonstrating how it was often the method of choice for sculptors when capturing life (and death). We were lucky enough to be given a tour by the exhibition’s curator, Veronika Tocha.

The exhibition opens with a space dedicated to the Gipsformerei, displaying a representative sample of their moulds and original casts in the first ever comprehensive presentation of the institution’s holdings. Videos demonstrate the cast-making process, making the subject matter accessible. Visitors were even able to touch a plaster cast of a thirteenth century bust which retained its flashlines, bringing to life both the material and the tangible reminders left on its surface by the making process.

The other objects on display covered an impressive chronological breadth, with plaster models from the workshop of ancient Egyptian sculptor Thutmose at Tell el-Amarna sharing spaces with cast works by Auguste Rodin, Marcel Duchamp and the contemporary German artist Asta Gröting. The exhibition shows that “life” in all its forms was the subject of casting, not only was the technique used to replicate the human form but also plants, animals, and other specimens from the natural world.

While casts do take up a major part of the exhibition, Near Life also incorporates paintings of scenes from plaster casting workshops, cast-makers’ sale catalogues from the nineteenth century, and pencil sketches made after plaster casts, demonstrating the significance of casting for the history of art.

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