Martina Droth, associate director of research and curator of sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art, challenged conventional categorizations of sculpture in a Tuesday lecture at the Center.
In a gallery talk accompanying the exhibit “Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837–1901,” Droth argued that replicas are often just as valuable as the original pieces. She explained that when new technologies led to innovative ways of replicating sculptures, copies of classical works became more prevalent — but have generally been perceived as less valuable then the original sculptures. Today, original pieces are valued as works of craftsmanship and replicas are seen as products of industry, but this distinction was not present in the Victorian era, she said.
“It’s a mistake to think of mass production as mutually exclusive from craft,” Droth said.
This division has also shaped the way sculpture is studied, Droth explained, mentioning that historically, works of silver, earthenware or ivory have been considered decorative arts while marble sculpture pieces have been studied separately and have generally been perceived as more valuable.
Droth explained that wealthy collectors purchased these less expensive replicas because they thought of them as “objects of invention,” adding that Queen Victoria herself owned both the original marble version of a work and its earthenware copy. Such historical examples make us think differently about the idea and purpose of reproduction, she said.
“[The replica] isn’t meant as a stand-in,” she explained. “The two works have value in their own right.”
Droth also explained how the new innovations were an opportunity to showcase the prowess of the manufacturing companies producing the replicas, and, by implication, show Britain to be a modern and successful nation.
One sculpture in the exhibit, Hiram Powers’s “Greek Slave”, has been copied several times — another of the six copies is on display across the street in the Yale University Art Gallery. These reproductions do not reduce the significance of the original, but rather enhance it, Droth said.
“Reproduction is a loaded term,” she said. “‘Greek Slave’ seems to gain more power the more it is reproduced and the more famous it becomes.”
The lecture was followed by a brief but lively discussion between Droth and audience members, who asked questions about the various media of sculpture showcased in the exhibit and the artistic and historical relevance of the works.
Several audience members said they enjoyed the talk, describing it as “terrific” and “very educational.” One New Haven resident noted that she appreciates the wide range of lectures offered by the YCBA.
The exhibit itself has been at the Center since early September, and will remain on display until the end of November. In February, it will be put up at the Tate Britain, an art museum in London, where it will remainw until the end of May.
Droth’s Tuesday talk came as a part of the YCBA’s “Art in Context” series of gallery talks led by faculty, staff and visiting scholars on selected Tuesdays. Linda Friedlander, curator of education at the YCBA, said the lecture’s turnout of more than 50 people was impressive, and larger than the audiences “Art in Context” usually sees.
The next “Art in Context” talk will be held in the YCBA on Sept. 30.