Neo-PLAssicism; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Contemporary Art

Melissa L. Gustin is 2018-2020 Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Henry Moore Foundation, working on a project titled “Reimagining Neoclassicism: Camp Reconsiderations of the Encountered Object.” She completed her PhD at the University of York in July 2018 on American neoclassical sculpture and the impacts of the Roman visual environment, classical receptions, and critical theory. Her new project will be looking at European and American neoclassicism in the long nineteenth century, then and now. She can be found tweeting about her research, travel, conferences, and coffee @Hosmeriana.

This research forms part of my monograph and has been presented at the Association For Art History conference, April 4 2019, with the support of a bursary from the Doctoral and Early Career Researcher board. I’m grateful to Rebecca Wade (Leeds Art Gallery) and Lizzie Johnson (Birkbeck) for the opportunity to participate in the From Casting to Coding session.

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John Gibson, Sleeping Shepherd Boy (1818-24, this version c. 1830/1). Marble, 112 x 104 x 55 cm. Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool; Sleeping Shepherd, 3D printed August 2018 in grey PLA filament from Oliver Laric scan of the Walker Gibson, Liverpool Biennial, 2016. Photograph by Melissa L Gustin.

In 1818 the young Welsh sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866) began work on an ideal sculpture that deftly married classical prototypes to the living model, and then carried out a little menage-a-trois with originality. Having moved to Rome the previous year to study sculpture under the celebrated Antonio Canova, Gibson graduated from making copies of Canova’s work and antique models to producing his own original figures. The work in question here, The Sleeping Shepherd Boy, was not developed in isolation but as part of a fertile visual dialogue between Gibson, Canova, Bertel Thorvaldsen, and the antique sculptures readily available in the museums of galleries in Rome.  

It’s a lovely little figure, a dozing boy slouched on a sheepskin-covered tree stump in absolute dereliction of his work. To emphasise how deep the shepherd is sleeping, a lounging lizard suns itself on the stump below the hem of his draperies. While one contemporary critic noted that “a shepherd — man or boy — ought to be watchful,” it was widely received as a work of great taste and skill. Three marble copies were produced, plus the Royal Academy’s plaster version (not, it should be noted, likely to be the working plaster from Gibson’s studio in the absence of pointing pins for replication). Though Gibson gave it the rather generic title of “Sleeping Shepherd Boy,” or “Repose,” he was drawing on the very specific relief called Endymion in the Capitoline Museum in Rome — a piece of antique sculpture he described later in life as being “by a great master.” We will all surely agree that in translating the relief into three dimensions, Gibson made a much more grave error than making his shepherd nap — he excised the dog, which both Canova and Thorvaldsen sensibly kept in their sculptures. 

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Left: So-called Endymion relief, Hadrianic era (circa 117-138 CE). Marble, 1.57 x 1.03m. Rome, Capitoline Museum, Stanza dei Imperatori. Photograph by Melissa L Gustin.
Right: 3D print of So-called Endymion relief, printed March 2019 by WowLondon from ScanTheWorld STL file. PLA plastic, 104 x 72 x 15 mm. Photograph by Melissa L Gustin.

The practice of making explicit reference to antique sculptures in modern work is a major component of neoclassical sculpture, though this was carried out with a wide range of elegance, nuance, and imagination across the hundred years or so when varying flavours of classical inflection were in vogue (sculpture, unsurprisingly, generally has a slower stylistic development than painting). Neoclassicism started to run out of steam around 1877, with the advent of the New Sculpture and realism in sculpture rather than adherence to classical idealism and Winckelmannian aesthetic princples, and really petered out by the end of the century — or did it?

Not entirely! 

There are two major elements of that “not entirely.” One is the increasing accessibility of 3D scanning, modelling, and printing technology for the general public and scholars (some of whom, like me, are the general public when it comes to technology). The other is the reuse of historical works of art by contemporary artists working in digital media and 3D technologies. I would argue that this doesn’t include something like Jeff Koons’s Gazing Ball series, though that is perhaps the most obvious reuse of historic works of art by a contemporary audience. Koons’s plaster casts and mirrored garden gazing balls are made using traditional production methods and assembled by his team of studio hands, rather than developed from scan data and printed using new resin or plastic printing media. Koons’s work is more akin, and this is not a derogatory remark in any way, to the restorers and artificers of the eighteenth century producing whole works out of extant fragments and new pieces.

I’m only a novice in 3D scanning and printing, so instead of trying to explain the technology, I’m going to focus on the second part, looking at Oliver Laric’s work for the 2016 Liverpool Biennial (Oliver Laric at Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin). Laric’s scans are available for remixing, printing, and sharing on threedscans.com and myminifactory (which also hosts the ScanTheWorld initiative). He used the scan data taken from the Walker Art Gallery’s Sleeping Shepherd and reproduced — with some notable changes — the work in various resins and plastics, using stereolithographic printing and a modular construction. Printed at 1:1 scale for installation, along with miniature versions in various colours including a lurid translucent neon green, the 2016 Shepherds re-enacted the referential nature of Gibson’s original work. That is, if Gibson’s 1818 design made specific, but modified reference to the Endymion relief in the Capitoline and to his contemporaries Thorvaldsen and Canova, Laric’s work performed the same gestures of reference and reimagining as Gibson nearly 200 years prior.

One version, shown in the ABC Lime Street Cinema, was printed in clear TuskXC2700T (a resin cured with lasers), and at first appears to be a faithful replication of the Walker Shepherd — except for the addition of increasingly smaller versions of the Shepherd at his feet. A different version has the addition of a starfish, while yet another includes crabs. All of these are printed in modular construction due to the constraints of printing technology, but the modularity of the prints also recalls the pieced, often multi-media constructions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century restored antiques and of Gibson’s famously controversial Tinted Venus, a polychrome sculpture exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition. The added elements of mini-shepherds or sealife are added to the mesh (a printable digital object) before printing and are as integral to the material sculpture as the lizard or straw shepherd’s hat are to Gibson’s marble original. 

My 3D prints of the Laric scan, and ScanTheWorld files from Copenhagen and Rome which materially informed this work, were printed in biodegradable polylactic acid or PLA, using fused-deposition modelling or FDM printers. These were done on commission from hobbyist and small-business printers in the UK from the open-access data, costing no more than £30 a piece (one unrelated print I have cost me only £6). Not only do these prints give me the ability to examine works of art that exist thousands of miles apart at close hand, in scales that allow me to carry them around, manipulate them, and rearrange displays at will, in the case of Laric’s scan, they also allow me to essentially participate in making, editioning, and owning contemporary art. 

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3D print of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Shepherd Boy. FDM printed translucent PLA using ScanTheWorld STL file. Photography by Melissa L Gustin.

As a Victorianist academic on early-career wages, I’m unlikely to ever own one of the marble Gibsons, but with 3D printing, I’m able to own miniature versions of my objects of study, from all over the world, in my own little museum of neoPLAcissical sculpture. New digital and reproductive media technologies offer artists with an interest in historical forms and intellectual processes new modes of production — not just in plastic, but in historic fine- and decorative-art materials like marble (barry x ball), ceramic (Michael Eden, alterfact studio), glass (Erin Dickson), and precious metals (Zachary Eastwood-Bloom). For Victorianists, long-nineteenth-century scholars, or material culture types, the work by these contemporary artists may offer practical and material insights into the practices of our historical subjects. 

Plus a lot of it is really shiny, and who doesn’t love a bit of shiny? 

More posts by Melissa Gustin:

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One response to “Neo-PLAssicism; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Contemporary Art

  1. Pingback: Week in Review – 14 April – Dr Freya Gowrley·

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