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About the mixed media techniques in sculpture

par Jacques Tcharny

What does the expression « mixed media techniques in sculpture »mean? What are we talking about ? What are we referring to? The amateur remains distraught: polychrome sculpture, chryselephantine sculpture, mixed media … Everything mixes in his mind … We are going to put order in this apparent confusion.

Polychrome sculpture is best known for its metal works, mainly bronze, on which different patinas (the colors in sculpture) were affixed, generally hot at the time. The cold patina is used more in the restoration of bronzes but there are sculptures the polychromy of which was created when cold. This technique has existed since Egyptian Antiquity, even Mesopotamian. It was taken over by the Greeks of the archaic period: the marble statues were painted. Polychromy was known in medieval times: we no longer realize it today because it has disappeared, but Romanesque and Gothic sculptures were tinted.

The chryselephantine sculpture is an invention from a specific period in ancient Greece: that of the “severe style“, at the end of the archaic period (around 520 / -480 BC). The great sculptors of the classical age, particularly Phidias, gave it its letters of nobility by giving it high artistic and cultural value. The most famous example is the famous “Athena Parthenos“.

It is a very specific combination of materials: on a carved and prepared wooden core, the artist affixed a “coating” of metal, gold leaf or melted for the most important orders, delicately worked and adapted to the surface to be covered and decorated, while the visible flesh parts: the face, arms and hands, even the legs or at least the feet, were made of worked ivory. Of course, only the most famous statues could receive this ceremonial constitution, the cost being exorbitant.

Olécio partenaire de Wukali

Mixed media, as we understand it, is an association of various materials: metal (often bronze), stone (often marble), ivory, etc. Some sculptures by Charles Cordier (1827-1905) combine marble, bronze, ivory, lapis lazuli, enamels, porphyry, onyx … The variations, without being infinite, can be numerous.

We will therefore define the mixed technique as an association of at least two different materials in the erection of a sculpture: bronze and marble, bronze and ivory, marble and porphyry …

The example of the association of bronze and marble seems to us typical of the problems of assembly of the work: the marble, which is a stone, is cut and sculpted, while the bronze, which is a metal, is melted . The two techniques being different, it is necessary to create each part individually. So it will be necessary to use a foundry workshop on one side, a marble workshop on the other. The assembly work will be done in a specialized workshop.

The use of the pantograph (device allowing to enlarge or reduce the dimensions of a model), around 1780 for marble, in 1834/1836 for bronze, reduced production costs. Despite everything, the cost prices of mixed techniques are much higher than those of the same bronze models (up to more than ten times).

We can easily imagine that the cost of such a sculpture will limit the number of copies made, and more and more depending on the size: bigger, more expensive! It is easy to understand that the number of amateurs, able to afford such a precious object of art, will be limited.

Charles Cordier, on this plan, is an exception: in 1851 he became “ethnographic sculptor of the natural history museum of Paris“. All his life was devoted to this theme. He no longer had to run after sponsors since the state was his main client. This did not prevent him from exhibiting at exhibitions.

As the event is lost in the mists of history, it is impossible to fix a precise period having seen the birth of mixed techniques in sculpture.

The old fisherman also called Seneca dying. 1m83
musée du Louvre

Thus, a famous Roman statue, « The old fisherman » also called “Seneca dying“, height 183cm, is made of black marble and alabaster for the belt (today at the Louvre Museum). Appearing in the collections of Duke Altemps in Rome, before 1599, acquired by Cardinal Scipion Borghese (1576-1623), it was placed in a basin in purple breccia marble, the surface of which appears blood red. It is so restored that one cannot recognize its initial state: for example, the painted eyes are not original. This kind of problem is common with ancient statues.

The Treasure of Tutankhamun proves that Pharaonic Egypt knew mixed media techniques.

But the details concerning them come, essentially, from the Greco-Roman writings which have come down to us, especially those of Pausanias (ten of his books are known), who lived between 115 and 180, at the time of the Antonine Emperors (96 -180), peak of Roman grandeur. He is nicknamed the great traveler of Antiquity, in reference to his innumerable journeys throughout the Mediterranean sea, and even beyond. It was he who made precise descriptions of the Zeus of Olympia and the Athena Parthenos of Athens, two works by Phidias.

From the above we will conclude, without surprise, that it was the periods of greatest expansion of ancient civilizations that allowed the blossoming of mixed media techniques in sculpture: 18th pharaonic dynasty, Athens under Pericles, Rome of the Antonines …

The Middle Ages also knew works in mixed techniques, of smaller sizes (often monastic treasures). But it was the Renaissance that brought mixed media back to life, in Siena and especially in Venice.

Many representations of “Moors” were made in mixed techniques by Venetian sculptors: black head of bronze or marble, clothes of rich marbles of various colors, base in monochrome marble of lesser quality, painted eyes, even in sulfide. Often, the works form pairs: one shows a look, even an inflection of the neck, directed to the right; its counterpart to the left. They are therefore real pairs, not repetitions of models. They served as decor in the palaces of the Serenissima. One can suppose that the wars, long and incessant, waged by Venice against the Turks, all around the Mediterranean sea were at the origin of these sculpted subjects.

Nicolas Cordier. La Bohémienne( la Zingarelle). 1602

Conversely, Florence completely rejected mixed media. Ghiberti, Donatello, Verrocchio, ignored them superbly. Michelangelo knew them, but his pursuit of purity and absoluteness made them undergo a total and final banishment, in favor of white marble. His influence was such that sculpture in mixed media did not reappear until the middle of the 19th century in Tuscany. Only decorative sculptures in the area were tolerated: because they were considered as manufacturing work by specialized workers, and not as works of art invented by authentic artists.

The Baroque, less intransigent, frequently used mixed media techniques. You only have to visit the Villa Borghese museum in Rome to be convinced. Because in Rome, the whole world was passing. Artistic interests and tastes were therefore more varied. A sculptor born in Lorraine, having spent most of his career in the Eternal City, Nicolas Cordier (1567-1612), was the main representative. But the rediscovery of the masterpiece, created voluntarily in mixed media, was done only around the middle of the 19th century, in France, after heated, even violent artistic debates, and when economic conditions permitted. What happened with the triumph of the business and industrial bourgeoisie, under Louis-Philippe I and under Napoleon III.

Pierre Simart. Minerve du Parthenon. Château de Dampierre

Let’s start with an exception that proves the rule: the “Minerva du Parthenon” by Pierre Simart (1806-1857), composed in mixed media techniques in the modern acceptance of the term, because made of patinated bronze, gilded bronze and ivory, presented at the Salon from 1855, preserved today at the castle of Dampierre (France). The masses of ivory used, carved and polished, are impressive. This attempt to restore the ancient model (which measured a dozen meters high), at a quarter of the scale (about three meters), cannot be called a masterpiece: no life emanates from it. But it has the merit of existing, of being large and of having shown young sculptors the path they would have to travel.

Charles Cordier. « Homme du Soudan français » présenté au Salon de 1857 sous le titre de « buste de nègre du Soudan », bronze et albâtre. Acquis par la Maison de l’empereur Napoléon III. Musée d’Orsay

It was with Charles Cordier, of whom we spoke above, that the art of mixed media reached, for the first time in ages, the heights of the possible. You have to visit the Musée d’Orsay to understand it: its magnificent ethnographic portraits impose silence, respect and admiration on the expert. They are ample, broad, alive. They take possession of their surrounding space as well as the mind of the spectator.

Charles Cordier (1827-1905). Juive d’Alger.
Bronze, bronze émaillé, marbre, onyx et porphyre
CNAP (Centre National des Arts Plastiques)
en dépôt au musée Saint-Loup de Troyes

The association of different materials (bronze, colored marbles, onyx, porphyry, alabaster, lapis lazuli, hard stones, enamels, etc.), under the guidance of the specialist who was the sculptor, creates a visual harmony but also tactile, which charms the eye. The unity, spiritual and physical, which emerges from it is completely perfect. The time recognized it, in a rare and unusual unanimity.

The beauty expressed by Cordier’s statues was such that few artists dared experiment with mixed media before the age of twenty. Then there was the rush, towards the end of the 19th century. In 1925, mixed media triumphed in salons and exhibitions. The 1929 American world crisis reached Europe in 1933: it was the end of luxury available to the wealthiest. Obviously, mixed media disappeared from circulation and their production stopped. The Second World War made them dinosaurs forgotten. It was not until the mid-1960s that a renewed interest arose and that they were rediscovered. Today mixed quality techniques reach impressive prices for sale: they are unaffordable for a simple amateur. Just things back …

European, even American, sculptors who have dealt with the theme are too numerous to be cited. We will focus on a few subjects, among the most representative of the type.

Corinthe. Jean-Léon Gérome. Bronze et émail

Jean-Léon Gérome (1824-1904), academic painter, had a very brilliant official career: Grand Prix de Rome, academy, professor of Fine arts … He exclaimed, in full debate with the Impressionists who looked with contempt the School of Fine Arts, “Gentlemen, it is better to be a firefighter than an arsonist! ” He also affirmed: “It is painting which breathes life into sculpture! “ Despite his peremptory declarations, he was a talented artist.

Jean-Léon Gérome. Corinne. Bronze, marbre, et émail

In the inventory after Gérome’s death, we mention: “The Corinth in polychrome plaster on a column” and: “The Corinth in white marble, in progress, on a bronze base”. However there are thirty listed copies of this model, others are, inevitably, scattered around the world. The total number should be around one hundred, or a little more.

This means that they were, absolutely all, made after the artist’s disappearance in 1904, and on behalf of his assigns. It is reasonable to assume that the special orders stopped in 1914, with the explosion of the “Great War”.

What matters is that each copy looks slightly different, at least in those we know: one all in gilded bronze on its column, the other in gilded bronze with enamel jewelry on column of bronze, a third is in marble on a bronze column, a fourth in bronze and marble on a gilt bronze column, the next in bronze and ivory without jewelry on a bronze column, yet another in bronze and ivory on a bronze column, but with enamel jewelry …

Let’s stop this Prévert-style inventory. Let us remember its meaning: the individualization of each copy sold, since all those known to date present variations in materials: from monochrome gilded bronze to different mixed techniques, with the use of marble, ivory, enamel. ..

This search for luxurious materials, to be integrated into a new copy of the model, proves the interest of the “belle epoque” for exceptional, very expensive materials. This is quite normal since the years 1880/1914 saw the triumph of the silver king. Our time has invented nothing …

Ernest Barrias (1841-1905) trained at the school of fine arts, under the classical rule. Grand Prix de Rome in 1864, we find him on the site of the Paris Opera. In 1881, he received a medal of honor at the salon. He entered the institute in 1884, then became a professor of fine arts. He was made Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1900. He was therefore an artist who had succeeded in his professional life.

In 1889 he received the commission for “nature revealing itself before science”, a statue planned to adorn the new medical faculty of Bordeaux. It’s an allegory: the young woman removes the veils that cover her face. It shows a classic face, of great purity, the whole of the sculpture exuding a very beautiful harmony.

La Nature se dévoilant à la Science (1899). Ernest Barrias (1841-1909). Musée d’Orsay, Paris

After this first version in white marble, the artist creates a second, in polychrome marbles, intended to decorate the staircase of honor of Arts and Crafts.

It is the copy kept today at the Musée d’Orsay.

It dates from 1899. Its components are: marble and Algerian onyx, malachite scarab, lapis lazuli ribbon, gray granite terrace. Its dimensions are: height 200 cm, width 85cm and depth 55 cm.

The general effect shows a surprisingly rich unity of invoice: the different parts were cut very delicately, so as to highlight the power, decorative and ornamental, of all the materials used. The polishing plays with the light on the veins of the onyx of the veil, on the “marbled” aspect of the red marble composing the dress, on the purity of the statuary white Carrara marble composing the face, chest, arms, hands and feet, on the refraction of the malachite scarab and the lapis lazuli ribbon, two noble hard stones which all civilizations have praised.

His imposing hierarchy, the cause of his taking possession of the surrounding space, is a real invention of the sculptor who owes nothing to past centuries, nor to his contemporaries. This specific hieraticism is an ancient, even ancient, sculptural principle found by Barrias. It is he who gives timelessness to the work. This is the reason for its success with the public.

The work is a particular moment, made of balance, harmony and serenity, of a general movement of rediscovery of sculpture in mixed techniques, stemming from archaeological sites and works of Cordier, and this since forty ‘years.

The success at the show was overwhelming. So that the subject was published in bronze and mixed techniques (bronze, marble, ivory, malachite, onyx, lapis lazuli …) in a very high number of copies and, at least, four different heights (up to ‘at 1 meter). Today, it is considered to be one of the most reproduced models of pre-1914 sculpture. We also agree that the work belongs to the “art nouveau” style which triumphs in salons , around 1900

The term means less in sculpture than in the decorative arts which, themselves, are the beginning of a modern artistic revolution carried out consciously, by approaching the surrounding real world, without completely neglecting the past.

But it was a very creative and inventive period for all talented sculptors. Barrias was one of them.

On rare occasions (private orders), he will be interested in mixed techniques. In this genre, his allegorical figure entitled « The Thought”, sculpture in red marble, green marble and white statuary marble from Carrara, on the basis of decorative marbles, dimensions: height 180cm, width 62cm, depth 57cm, dated 1902, bearing this dedication on the side: “DERNIER SOUVENIR DE MAD DUCHESNE- A SA SOEUR MADAME HERBET »“, is its most beautiful jewel. It is kept at the Petit Palais museum in Paris.

Denys Puech (1854-1942) Musée du Petit Palais. Paris

Denys Puech (1854-1942), clearly younger than Barrias, had a brilliant official career: coming from a modest family of farmers, he will be an apprentice marble worker in Rodez before entering the school of fine arts in Paris in 1872. Grand Prix de Rome in 1884, he received numerous orders from the state, throughout the Third Republic. Academician in 1905, he founded the Rodez Museum of Fine Arts (now Puech Museum) in 1903. He was director of the Villa Medici in Rome from 1921 to 1933.

Its installation in space is, obviously, less assured than that of “the unveiling nature” of Barrias: its decorative aspect is more marked. But it remains a quality work, made by an artist who knows his craft.

If the expression of the face is limited, the flexibility of the body is very apparent: the inflection is given by the delicate movements of withdrawal of the right arm as well as by the beginning of rotation of the neck and the right shoulder. A great sweetness emanates from this “pensive” head: no action but reflection, leading to an intellectual distancing from the subject, whose face seems distant to the spectator, as if taking refuge in a parallel world. The fact that the gaze is directed above the observer, implying the effect that we have just described, is at the origin.

Note that the polishing of the sculpture appears lustrous: the patina used had to be enriched, in one form or another (wax?). Another important detail for the understanding of what is the application of a color on the marble: hair and hairstyle are tinted, giving its blondness to the young woman. Coloring a marble is always a difficult problem: you must not go too far or not deep enough, otherwise the crystals of the marble will no longer be capable of refraction and the effect of fascination will no longer exist.

All these elements constitute the great success of this particular order.

So far we have studied the achievements of French sculptors. We will therefore be interested in creations by foreign artists.

Starting with Max Klinger (1857-1920), German painter, engraver and sculptor whose notoriety went far beyond the borders of his country. He had a brilliant official career. It is located in the great wave of European symbolists, somewhat rubbed with Germanic romanticism: the « Sturm und Drang ».

Max Klinger (1857-1920). Beethoven. Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.

His most famous sculpture: his Beethoven, measures over three meters in height, base included. It is already a small monument. The work is kept at the Leipzig Museum. The development was very slow: it lasted fifteen years. A first complete model exists, it dates from the years 1885/86. It’s tinted gypsum. It was only in 1902 that the building was completed. Perfectionist and somewhat dissatisfied, the artist took his time. Then he bent over the problem of the constituent materials of his statue. He chooses classic ones: marble, alabaster, bronze and ivory. But also improbable: amber and glazed ceramic or enamel (?), For the decoration of the upper internal part of the armchair.

What do we see exactly? A scowling figure, when he should be shown tormented, sits on a grandiloquent ceremonial throne. The voluntary chin, the tight lips, the distant glance which sees only in itself, it is in phase of concentration: the “creative genius” of this ersatz of Beethoven is supposed to be in gestation of one of its major works . Her hair is curly. We recognize the musician perfectly. But the softness of the work leaves you speechless: the right arm is ridiculously inert; the clenched right fist is grotesque and absurd; the flesh is flaccid: no muscle is visible, to believe that the figure shown is a disarticulated puppet. Everything is ugly in the interpretation of the subject. The rejection, not to say the scandal, during its presentation at the Viennese salon in 1902, was general: no spirit emanates from this sculpture. As for showing Beethoven as a mythological god, it was a total misinterpretation. The eagle at the feet of man, whose shape is difficult to recognize, is supposed to be the emblem of Jupiter. It is so badly designed and so frumpy that it barely fits on the base, on the verge of collapsing. It’s heartbreaking.

Naked to the hips, Beethoven’s legs wear a coat in the tradition of antiquity. The body is made of white marble (probably statuary white marble from Carrara), the garment of yellow marble (probably yellow of Siena). His sandals are antique models of white marble. The stupid base, linking the eagle and the man, protrudes from the pedestal, creating a disastrous effect of optical distortion. The decorations of angel heads in ivory, those in amber and enamel (?) Are inept.

This sculpture, which marked its time, has only two qualities: its large size and its demonstration of the inconsistency of Max Klinger’s vision: a pensive Beethoven, sitting naked in the middle of the angels, an eagle at his feet!

If we wanted to decipher this sculpted monster, it is to highlight that the art of mixed techniques requires a perfect knowledge of the materials, as well as a synthetic vision of the desired subject. This is not the case here…

Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934). Saint George

The British Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934) was a sculptor of a different caliber. He marked the history of sculpture in his country. Figurehead of the movement called “the new sculpture”, he has a natural genius for three-dimensional art. Admitted to the Royal Academy School in 1873, he left London for Paris in 1875, where he became a student in the fine arts. It is there that he discovers a work by Toulouse Antonin Mercié (1845-1916) exhibited at the salon of 1872: “David the winner of Goliath” (Musée d’Orsay), which will be one of the two starting points for the new school of English sculpture, the other being the David of Donatello (Bargello Museum, Florence).

Then he moved to Rome for a few years before returning to England in 1885. His works, of a completely new design and style, will cause a sensation. The good reception of his “Perseus Arming”, 1882, then of his “Icarus”, 1884, by the cultured public as well as by art critics, will make him the most popular of the sculptors of the time. He received numerous official commissions, including royal ones (Queen Victoria Jubilee Memorial, 1887). His Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, from Picadilly Circus, shows the level of support his work had achieved. Following his resounding bankruptcy (he was a bad manager) he went into exile in Bruges before returning to end his existence in England.

If Gilbert revolutionized style, manner, subjects and evolution of British sculpture, it is also because he introduced new molding techniques in the United Kingdom: it was he who rediscovered lost wax casting there. While his pronounced tastes for polychromy, mixed techniques and metallic alloys different from bronze (aluminum for example) were to provoke emulation between the foundry workshops and arouse vocations among the young talented sculptors of the time.

A copy of his Saint Georges, bronze and ivory with green patina, 46.5 cm high, on a wooden base, was acquired by the Musée d’Orsay. The exact number of copies made remains unknown even today.

The elegance of the artist’s style is obvious: slight mannerist elongation of the subject, finesse and preciousness of the bronze details of the armor covering the body to the waist, fine and long ivory hands, face in the extension of the neck, individualized face, very thoughtful, whose gaze lingers on the body of the dragon. Head and neck were carved from a single piece of ivory and, therefore, give greater consistency to the statuette. Finally, the huge spear at the guard decorated with religious attributes (Christ on the cross).

Let’s add that the animation of the subject is also done by the triple flexion of the body, as discreet as it is: the legs, slightly oriented to the left, are followed by an inclination of the pelvis, thorax and abdomen, to the right ; before the shoulders and head become straight again. This introduces the notions of movement and rotation. The distant origin of triple bending is to be sought in classical Indian sculpture: the famous tribhanga.

What emerges from this work is the overall unity in the respect and conformity of all the parties. But everything is done with unexpected sweetness for the subject. The synthesis is perfect, as well as the structural analysis of the constituent elements of the sculpture.

Today, most of Gilbert’s works are kept in museums, in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

The last example we will talk about is a work by Demetre Chiparus (1886-1947), whose work belongs to the “Art Deco” style which will triumph at the exhibition of the same name in 1925, in Paris.

Demetre Chiparus. Dancers. Bronze chryselephantine sculpture with original patina, enhanced with color with ivory heads and arms (light hair). Vintage edition font from Etling, publisher’s mark. Original base in red onyx and Portor marble with oblique oval body. Signed on the base. High. 45.5 cm (single subject) – H. 57 cm (total)

After a few studies, he left his native country, Romania, in 1909, arriving in Paris in 1912. Very quickly, his style pleased. Orders will pour in. His great creative period extends from 1914 to 1933 (when the world crisis reaches Europe).

To explain his way of composing, let us quote an extract from an article published in “the gallery”, on March 10, 2007: “After a few drawings, the artist produced a” plastiline “, a ductile material like clay, which takes its final form when hardening. The founder assembled the ivory work and the metal patina, then the whole was painted cold. Finally, a marble or onyx base completed the statuette ”.

With success, editions of the artist’s statuettes were very numerous, in different sizes. He will be particularly interested in representing dancing subjects.

We will focus on one of them: “the Russian dance couple” (Nijinski and the Pavlova?). Heads, arms and hands are made of ivory, the rest of the body is of patinated bronze with variations from light green to dark green. The base is marble.

We immediately notice the absence of individualization of the faces: there is nothing to characterize the dancers. They sport a silly smile: the mouth is ajar, the lips sketched but not very marked, the eyes show a vague look, the cheeks are expressionless and the noses similar. The two characters are presented back to back but, oh surprise, the faces face each other and the dancers seem to be talking!

It is the dance movement that catches the eye: it is fairly well rendered, giving a certain attraction to the sculpture. The details are properly highlighted, including the highly detailed costumes, cymbals, slippers and hats. We see that ivory appears under the dress of the dancer, something extremely difficult to obtain. The composition and structure of the subject therefore hold onto the ramp, allowing the viewer to accept the artist’s cutesy vision. It was his playfulness that made his success with the public: thus, the pleasant subject pleases the eye, somewhat dull, of the lover of time. Only the decorative aspect counts. It is therefore not surprising that Chiparus triumphed at the 1925 exhibition, known as the decorative arts. The artist knows his job. His talent can only be seen in dance subjects. Besides, he rarely ventured into unknown territory: he knew he was limited and never took any risks. We understand it anyway.

The world of mixed media is just as vast and unknown. Without being a totally virgin land, the work of analysis and synthesis on the theme is in its infancy. Their study proves the High Antiquity and the long History of the subject. We wanted to interest the reader. By necessity, our vision is partial, if not fragmented. We only hope that we have made readers want to go further to find out more.


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