Berlin’s Gipsformerei, founded in 1819, is home to historical moulds and models of over 7,000 sculptural works stretching from prehistory and early history through to the 20th century, which are drawn from almost every collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and from renowned institutions across Germany and around the world. Long perceived as a purely functional collection, today, the historical value of these holdings is increasingly being recognised. In 2019, the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung facilitated the first step toward the research and restoration of this extraordinary collection.
Historical casts provide information about the history and canons behind our museums, the political relationships between international institutions, and the biographies and transfers of objects between museum collections. They provide evidence of traditional casting and mould-making techniques, and they conserve lost works of art and cultural history long after the originals have ceased to exist. The focus of this pilot project is thus on the moulds and models that were based on artworks that have since been lost, destroyed or damaged. A large portion of these works were destroyed during the Second World War or were taken to other countries as the spoils of war; while others were adversely affected by years of exposure to the elements or damaged for other reasons. Thanks to these historic moulds, which were produced on a large scale from the mid-19th century, a whole range of these works have been preserved in plaster, making them available to ensuing generations.
With the generous support of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, these holdings – so important for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – can now be analysed in detail. Some 300 inventory numbers, comprising more than 1,000 moulds and models, are at the centre of this three-year research project, which is being carried out by an interdisciplinary team. This project lays the foundations for cataloguing the entire collection, providing the first section of a comprehensive scholarly catalogue of the collection. Not only does this establish the groundwork for further research into lost artworks, more importantly, it provides important insights into the history of the Gipsformerei, and into the techniques and methods of historical casting and the importance and value of plaster casts throughout the ages. By way of the object biographies that are produced, alternative histories of collecting emerge, in which the casting moulds, models and painting models fabricated at different points in time can be appreciated as autonomous works.
Among the objects examined in the project are moulds and models of sculptural works from the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantianische Kunst, the Antikensammlung, the Nationalgalerie, the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, the Ethnologisches Museum, the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, as well as from external museum collections. Due to the heterogeneity of the collections and the types of objects they house, the project provides a cross-section of the entire collection of the Gipsformerei. Because it is not just famous busts from the Renaissance that have been lost or damaged, but also Neoclassical statuettes or small works of Greek sculpture, as well as English plaques, Ancient Egyptian objects, Attic votive reliefs, Byzantine lamps, Javanese Buddha heads, Aztec calendar stones, and Trojan antiquities – to name just a few examples.
Funded by: Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung
Interdisciplinary team: Dr Veronika Tocha (research lead), Thomas Schelper (project coordinator for the Gipsformerei), Rainer Palau (project participant from the Gipsformerei), Aurelia Badde, M.A. (freelance conservator-restorer)
Project duration: June 2020 to May 2023