January 22, 2009

Under the Eyes Of the Gods

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They’ve had their breasts painted green by architecture students. They’ve been stolen by miscreant frat boys. They’ve been rolled down Libe Slope on Slope Day and they’ve weathered the storms of misuse and assault.
Cornell’s plaster cast collection, needless to say, has not had an easy go of it. Housed in buildings across campus from the Johnson Museum to Goldwin Smith Hall to Mann Library, the ubiquitous but oft-neglected replicas of Greek and Roman statues serve as a backdrop to of many of our comings and goings. But despite their central role in the physical experience of Cornell, they have been reduced over the years to half their original number, and many of the survivors have been painted over or damaged. Subject to the vicissitudes of educational and aesthetic policy, the casts stand as emblems of Cornell’s past and our attitudes towards our predecessors’ values.
Andrew Dickson White, one of Cornell’s two founders, acquired the bulk of the collection during European sojourns in the late 1800’s. Valuing the importance of classical education, White believed that his students should have access to the greatest art of antiquity and spent over $25,000 (nearly a million dollars in today’s currency) to acquire precise casts of nearly 700 pieces of sculpture from around the Mediterranean. In a painstaking process that required a plaster mold to be formed around the original statue, chipped off in small pieces, shipped and reassembled in New York, some of the most representative pieces of Greek and Roman art were presented on our campus in exact one-to-one dimensions.
The result was one of the most impressive plaster cast collections in the world. Timeless pieces such as Lacoön and His Sons and busts of the Julio-Claudian emperors became fixtures of our remote, upstate campus. In an 1891 article on the gallery of casts in the basement of McGraw Hall, The New York Times declared the selection superior to any other university collection in America and second only to that of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The pieces soon became a main draw for tourists in the Ithaca area and Cornell students of all disciplines were able to interact with the art of the ancient world in a way which only a trip to Europe could surpass.
Unfortunately, attitudes changed over time. A sharp drop-off in classics-oriented study and a new reliance on photography spelled danger for Cornell’s inimitable collection, and the second half of the 20th-century saw an orgy of destruction and indifference for the once-respected casts. In time, the plasters were reduced to the status of disposable luxuries and budget-burdening knockoffs.
“The thing that killed the collection more than anything was the invention of the 35 mm. slide,” says Peter Kuniholm, a retired professor of Dendrochronology at Cornell whose work, A Guide to the Classical Collections of Cornell University, presents the most comprehensive overview of the university’s holdings. “Aesthetic pace changed over time, and people got around to thinking, ‘eh, what the hell?’ ”
In an epidemic of down-with-the-old, in-with-the-new enthusiasm, academics across the country laid waste to their once-enviable plaster reproductions, throwing valuable casts down elevator shafts and destroying them with hammers. But in a perhaps unintentional moment of foresight, Cornell managed to preserve a large proportion of its own holdings.
“Cornell never does things 100 percent, they only do it halfway, so I managed to find about half the collection,” says Kuniholm, who began working with students in the 1970s to preserve and catalog the university’s collection. He and other mindful art historians, such as Professor Anneta Alexandridis, have begun to reassess the value of full-scale copies of the ancient masters’ work and present them to the student public. Thanks in no small part to their work, several of the university’s pieces are now on display around campus.
Take, for example, the statues that greet visitors to Goldwin Smith’s advising offices on the ground floor. These casts, taken from the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, depict a battle between humans and centaurs, with the god Apollo at the center attempting to defuse the conflict. The assemblage is a striking bit of antiquity in a thoroughly contemporary setting, and has served as easily accessible examples for classicists and students of art.
“More and more professors are now recognizing that these actually represent a serious educational tool,” says Professor Kuniholm. “Looking at a life-size model is a hell of a lot better than looking at a 35 mm. slide.”
His words are echoed by Professor Alexandridis, who will help to oversee the collection in coming years. “I think you can enjoy them on different levels,” she says. “It can just be an aesthetic pleasure, [or] you can tell these great stories. For the students, the great thing is you get the right dimensions.”
Indeed, the value of full-size reproductions is hard to underestimate for those hoping to learn from Greek and Roman sculptors. The nuances of form and technique that are indiscernible from slides are on display for any passerby in Goldwin Smith or the Johnson, providing an opportunity to appreciate the original works in a way that is often otherwise impossible.
“[The casts] are actually very valuable,” says Alexandridis, who is looking for students to help with the collection’s upkeep. “These are 19th-century casts. They often show the items in a state of preservation they are not in now.” In other words, the effects of vandalism and pollution that have taken a toll on the originals in Europe can be imagined away by consulting collections such as the one at Cornell.
But despite the recent renaissance in plaster cast awareness, there are still serious challenges to the integrity of the collection. A large portion of the pieces sit unused in a warehouse near the Ithaca airport and those interested in utilizing the casts are often inhibited by bureaucratic meddling. The security of the collection is by no means assured, and for all the aesthetic pleasure they provide to passing Cornellians, there is still work to be done. “It a seriously useful resource, but they have to be repaired,” says Kuniholm. “You don’t just repair them overnight. It take bodies. It takes a workspace.” One can only hope that it is not too late to preserve a unique part of our university’s history.