Not just a copy: Belgian plaster cast workshop preserves art history

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Belgian plaster cast workshop preserves art history - A plaster cast of a bust can be seen in the storage area of a specialized Belgian workshop. - Sven Braun/dpa

Nele Strobbe carefully removes an object the size of a brick from the shelves of a warehouse in Brussels' Art and History Museum and unwraps it, revealing the praying hands of a miniature figure.

The figure is just one of 4,000 forms created at the museum's plaster cast workshop in Belgium. The casts range from a figurine of the Venus of Willendorf, which dates back to the Stone Age, to an 18th-century bust of the composer Georg Friedrich Handel.

The reason the collection is so extensive is thanks to a decision taken at the 1862 International Exhibition, a world's fair that took place in London, according to Strobbe, the workshops's curator.

European countries decided to work together more closely in art and culture - including plaster cast figures. Such figures were the easiest way to show art from other countries in a time before photography, and when travel was too expensive for most people.

"The plaster cast figures were a way to show the range of what had been created," says Strobbe.

A museum of the models was established in Brussels, and next door to it, a plaster cast workshop started operations. Those working there created detailed moulds that are still in use today, 150 years later.

It is one of just three workshops attached to museums in Europe, with the others in Paris and Berlin.

The workers use a variety of techniques to create plaster models.

Most are made using the museum's many moulds, most of which consist of several parts. They form a negative of the artworks, creating the outer shape of the sculpture. Plaster is then placed inside the moulds, in several layers, and the work is left to dry. Workers knock off any remaining extra bits of plaster, and then it's complete, though customers can have the models painted too, if they choose.

In reproducing these works of art, the workshop's specialized craftsmen employ traditional techniques in both the casting and the patination, according to the museum's website.

Plaster casts lost some of their value as photography became more widespread during the 1920s and 1930s, says Strobbe. People wanted to see original works, making copies less important. The Brussels museum was then cleared in order to create space for a new exhibition, and many of the collection's works were lost or broken in the process.

Of the workshop's original staff of 20, only three are left, including the curator.

However, interest in plaster cast models started to grow again in the 1990s, as people started to see the models themselves as historical objects, rather than cheap copies.

The collection also has a documentary value, says Strobbe, making works long lost to the world accessible again.

One of Germany's most iconic monuments has profited from this craft - the quadriga atop the Brandenburg Gate. Miguel Helfrich, who heads Berlin's institute for plaster moulding, says the chariot pulled by four horses on the gate in the German capital was almost wholly destroyed during World War II. Towards the end of the war, however, the workshop created a model copy of the original, he explains.

In 1957, East and West Germany worked together to create a new quadriga using the model, Helfrich says. "We reproduce objects that no longer exist." That's part of the value of the models, he says.

According to Strobbe, these days, many of the plaster figures go to art academies, for example, where students use them to draw from.

But people can also order works of art from the plaster cast workshop if they want their very own Michaelangelo at home, at a far more reasonable price. Those interested can order a figure that costs between a couple hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the size and complexity of the work.

But if you were hoping to place your new figure in a garden, you'll be out of luck. Strobbe says the models are not suitable for gardens as they are sensitive to damp and would be damaged in a few years.