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Near Life
The Gipsformerei - 200 Years of Casting Plaster

30.08.2019 to 01.03.2020

With „Near Life: The Gipsformerei — 200 Years of Casting Plaster“ the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin celebrate the 200th anniversary of the foundation of their oldest institution. Since 1819 the Gipsformerei has relied on time-honoured handcraft traditions to turn out casts of signature sculptures, ranging in date of origin from prehistory and early history to the twentieth century. The special exhibiton emphatically places centre stage the casting technique as an approximation to life practised by sculptors since ancient times.

The exhibition is predicated on the idea that taking casts was the method of choice to – quite literally – get closest to life (and death). Roughly 200 exhibits – sculptures as well as paintings, books, graphics, photographs and videos – put the significance of life casts for the history of sculpture centre stage. The exhibition’s trajectory extends from the cast of a crocodile and different kinds of life and death masks to iconic works of art in whose creation casting techniques played a crucial role.

Presentation and Comparison

"Near Life" is the first comprehensive presentation of the Gipsformerei holdings. As the world’s largest manufactory of its kind that is still operational today, the Gipsformerei boasts a collection comprising several thousand master models, moulds and painting models. The exhibition seeks to put on display a representative cross-section of these holdings and complements it both with items from other collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and outstanding objects on loan from Germany and abroad. A key role is accorded to contemporary art: it is uniquely suited to show how casts emancipated themselves from the subservient status of technical aids to works of art in their own right. 

Exhibition Opens the James Simon Galerie

The exhibition is a premiere of sorts for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in that it opens up a new venue on Museum Island: the special-exhibition space in the newly built James Simon Galerie. The Gipsformerei therefore returns to its historical roots for its anniversary. In the 1830s, the Königlich-Preussische Gipsgussanstalt took up the basement floor of the Altes Museum. In preparation for the opening of the Neues Museum in 1855, an entire plaster floor was planned, envisioned as the ‘core of all collections’. The casts were to be supplied directly by the Gipsformerei, The exhibition highlights the close connection between the Gipsformerei and the sculptural holdings of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin with a “plaster cast trail”, consisting of select interventions in the permanent exhibitions on Museum Island.

A free audio guide – featuring artists, artistic plasterers, scholars, 3D experts, museum professionals and a mortician who have their say in a polyphonic sound collage – takes visitors through the exhibition. Complemented by numerous historical (sound) documents, the participants bring their different points of view on the subject of making plaster casts to this listening experience (directed by Martin Baer; sound design: Oliver Brod).

Photographer Philip Radowitz effectively sets the collection objects of the Gipsformerei (Replica Workshop) into a workshop context for the extensive publication accompanying the exhibition. Its 16 essays delve into the cultural history of plaster casts. The publication is available through the webshop of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and at the Buchhandlung Walther König.

On the exhibition "Near Life: The Gipsformerei — 200 Years of Casting Plaster" there will be an extensive accompanying lecture series.

Media partners:  ARTE and Der Tagesspiegel.

The two princesses, after Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764 –1850); Double Statue of Princesses Luise and Friederike of Prussia; Master model, 1926; Plaster, shellacked; 174 x 91 x 67 cm; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei, R-03112 (Original: 1795, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie)
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / 3D-Digitalisierung, Virtual Exhibition, Post-Produktion: Studio Jester Blank, 2021
View of the 3D Exhibition Near Life
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / Studio Jester Blank
View into the model hall
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / Jürgen Hohmuth, Zeitort
Long Night of Museums on 31. August 2019
© Lange Nacht der Museen
David Chipperfield, Mayor Michael Müller Ann and Timothy M. Simon, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prof. Dr. Hermann Parzinger, Monika Grütters and Prof. Dr. Michael Eissenhauer at the opening of the James-Simon-Galerie on 12 July 2019
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker
James-Simon-Galerie, view towards the main entrance
© Ute Zscharnt für / for David Chipperfield Architects
View of the 3D Exhibition Near Life © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / Studio Jester Blank
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / Studio Jester Blank
View of the 3D Exhibition Near Life © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / Studio Jester Blank
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / Studio Jester Blank
After Christian Daniel Rauch, Reclining Bust of Luise, Queen of Prussia, master model, before 1965, plaster, shellac treatment
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gipsformerei / Philip Radowitz

10178 Berlin

wheelchair accessible
Please note: The James-Simon-Galerie will continue to be open to visitors during the construction-related closure of the Pergamonmuseum.

Entry to the Neues Museum for groups: All groups visiting the Neues Museum are to enter the James-Simon-Galerie via the courtyard and the lower foyer: Information for group visits (PDF, 248 KB).

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Tram: Am Kupfergraben, Hackescher Markt
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3D tour of the exhibition


Museum and the City: Posts about the Gipsformerei on the blog of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (German only)