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Fake views? What we can learn from the V&A’s Cast Courts | Art and design

The full-scale replica of Trajan’s Column that stands in two halves in the V&A’s Cast Courts has always been a gobsmacking object to come across indoors. Now its interior is about to reveal a steampunk secret. As part of the restoration of the Cast Courts, which reopen this weekend, a door has been opened at the base of this monument. What can be in there? The darkness reveals … a chimney. It turns out that with typically Victorian practicality the creators of the Cast Courts built two solid brick cylinders like industrial chimney stacks to support the two halves of this ancient – and modern – wonder.Why did they do it? Why did the Victorians not only create this stupendous replica of one of Rome’s most sublime monuments but fill two vast rooms in South Kensington with full-size casts of everything from the ceremonial doors of Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral to Michelangelo’s David? The answer is all around you as you meditate inside Trajan’s Column. The Cast Courts are relics of a cultural Europhilia that’s clearly not shared by modern Britain. These loving educational artworks bear witness to a passion to know, to see, and most of all to understand the cultural heritage of Europe: to bring the continent’s artistic jewels to these rainy shores.

The construction of the Cast Courts, August 1873

The construction of the V&A’s Cast Courts, August 1873. Photograph: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Just a handful of British monuments are replicated – including medieval effigies of knights from London’s Templar Church, which are precious because the originals were badly damaged in the blitz. German art treasures are displayed near the Templar effigies. There’s an immense flowing monument by Adam Kraft, carved in 1490-2, that’s a wonder of Renaissance Nuremberg: the V&A’s beautiful pale cast of this teeming panoramic relief lets you contemplate the pitiful faces of Christ’s mourners as they lower his body into its tomb. From Germany we jump to Prague in a black replica of the Czech city’s 14th-century statue of St George Slaying the Dragon. There are even several copies of wonderful works from Belgium itself, dreary home, modern Britons have been told so often, of EU sterility. The most impressive is a soaring pinnacle of columns, statues and spires from a church in Zoutleeuw.

Long before the foundation of the EU, the Victoria and Albert Museum was at the forefront of a pan-European cultural movement. In 1867, its first director Henry Cole got 19 European rulers to sign a treaty that committed them to exchanging copies of their countries’ art treasures. The V&A’s Trajan’s Column, for instance, was reproduced from a copy originally made for Napoleon III of France.

Cast of an aegicrane capital, plaster, from 16th-century stone pilaster capital in the Tuileries Palace in Paris

Masterly copy … a cast of an aegicrane capital, plaster, from 16th-century stone pilaster capital in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Photograph: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It’s hard to enter the mentality of Cole and his contemporaries. We’re tempted to see these casts as postmodern proof that a “fake” is as good as the real thing. Which is in fact the opposite of what the Victorians intended. The point of these casts is to help you learn Europe’s art history – to study, from the best examples, the Romanesque, gothic, and Renaissance – so that when, if, you can travel for yourself to Granada or Florence, you will know what you are looking at.

The V&A’s comprehensive restoration of these masterly copies, freeing them from dust and equipping them with modern labels and a new section on the history and technology of artistic reproduction, is true to that original purpose. Henry Cole hoped that visitors to the V&A would be inspired by its cast of David to go to Italy and see the original, so much more alive and powerful than any copy. It’s a sad irony that these galleries reopen as Britain stumbles towards exit from the EU.

These galleries are full of monuments to a Britain that understood and acknowledged its Europe cultural heritage and was full of passion for the continent’s art. The Europe we are rejecting is preserved here in a time capsule. If we could truly understand what made our ancestors create this plaster-cast theme park we might start to heal the narrowing of the British mind. There is a melancholy to casts. From death masks to the sepulchral sculptures of Rachel Whiteread, casting preserves what has been lost. A face, a house – or Europe.

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