Here at US Arts we are fortunate to have many great plaster busts to draw from. In my class, we make frequent use of these copies of old masterworks, as well as other, more academic plasters. Students are able to learn quite a lot from drawing these things –– especially about light logic.
But, I was wondering –– why are all our plasters cast from Western sculptures? After all, we have many students from non-Western backgrounds; why not incorporate some statues from a wider variety of cultural backgrounds? Certainly there are many masterpieces of sculpture depicting the human form from the various cultures of East, Southeast, and South Asia –– as well as other places. Some Native American groups, like the Maya and Andean cultures, also developed a high degree of naturalism in their sculptures, and would add a fun diversity to our drawing options.
K'inich Janaab' Pakal – one of the greatest Mayan rulers (lived 603 - 683 CE).
My co-worker and fellow US Arts teacher, Christina Lee, also pointed out that the sculptures need not even be that representational; the interesting, abstracted forms of African sculptures and masks could also provide students with great material for a technical rendering every bit as rigorous as from a naturalistic sculpture.
Full of excitement, I spoke to our campus director and got the green light for the idea! I began to search on the internet for plaster casts of non-Western sculptures, and –– hit a brick wall. There didn’t seem to be any! Don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of poor copies (the kind you might see for sale in a museum gift store, or from some street vendor catering to the kitsch tastes of tourists). But a reproduction is not the same thing as a plaster cast; usually a reproduction is far inferior in quality. A plaster cast is by no means perfect, but it does at least contain a more faithful echo of the original, and the grace that is too easily lost when reproduced by a person working on an assembly line geared towards mass-production.
It would be great if some of the cultural institutions that currently house these great masterpieces of non-Western sculpture could look into whether or not plaster casts might be made without damaging the originals. Here are some great sculptures I wish were available in plaster casts:
Guan Yin, China (Currently in Santa Barbara Museum of Art)
Realistic portraiture by Japanese master, Unkei.
Another by Unkei: Wrathful guardian deity.
Not all the "Terracotta Soldiers" were created equal; some show a vastly superior sensitivity in the way their facial features were handled by the artists who molded them. Of course that's what one would expect; there are some 8,000 of these guys! They can't all be masterpieces. However, the two I selected for this blog certainly are masterpieces. If we could have faithful reproductions of the more refined examples – not ones generated purely for profit, but for serious, aesthetic study – now that would be progress!