Have you ever wondered why there are a number of plaster casts abandoned in the corridors and basement of Birmingham School of Art? If so, you may be interested in a display we've just installed in the showcase at the bottom of the main stairs at Parkside.
In the mid-nineteenth century, it was widely believed that students could develop their artistic skills most effectively by studying and copying from the `best` ancient and classical examples. In response, Birmingham School of Art assembled its own collection of plaster casts of classical statues, busts and friezes for their students to draw, paint and model. They also obtained the ten-volume set of Description of the Ancient Marbles at the British Museum for the library at the School. First published in the early nineteenth century, it contained detailed engravings of ancient Greek sculptures. Alongside one of the open volumes, we're showing three drawings from the cast made by a student in the early 1870s and two late Victorian photographs of other students making such drawings in the first floor studios. The emphasis is clearly on accurate observation and the achievement of high levels of technical skill.
But how are we using them today? Do they still have a role within contemporary practice? Staff at Glasgow School of Art clearly think so. Back in May, their Head of Fashion Tom Brotheridge collaborated with GSA graduate Ruth Switalski in putting together his show Material Objects for the Glasgow International Festival. On seeing some of the casts recovered from the Mackintosh Building after the fire in 2014, he opted to clothe some of them in a way that invited new interpretations of these very traditional pieces. One compelling example is his Standing Discobulus, Innit (2018), in which the classical figure of Discobulus is re-cast as a contemporary youth in a hoodie slouched over an imaginary mobile phone by draping swathes of white fabric around it.
More recently, international students attending a pre-sessional English course at GSA earlier this month were invited to respond creatively to an item from the Archives and Special Collections that especially appealed to them. One chose to focus on a cast taken from the ear of a copy of Michelangelo's David, producing two posters that showed a very innovative use of space. One of these was a design for a swimming pool!
How might you respond to the casts at Margaret Street?