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Going for bronze.


Now that London 2012 is upon us, this issue of Apollo is proudly going for bronze, with two features on Henry Moore (pp. 42-47; Fig. 1) and Constantin Brancusi (pp. 28-41) respectively. Moore loved bronze because 'it can do anything', and also because it 'weathers and lasts in all climates'--for him, part of the fascination was anticipating how the elements would interact with his preliminary patina. Yet Moore also maintained that 'bronze is not really a material on its own ... It's a casting material. It's a reproductive material for any ideas you like to have. You never make the idea in bronze itself.'

Brancusi, whose practice of heavily working rough bronze casts led him to assert that he made no editions or reproductions, would probably have disagreed with this view. Nonetheless, it can be said even of his four varied Mademoiselle Pogany I bronzes that they have a once-removed quality--though we accept them as originals, they all derive from another original, in plaster. Where sculptors directly finish their bronzes to the extent that each version differs substantially from the master model, such a nuanced conception of 'uniqueness'--that great determinant of financial value in art--is relatively uncontroversial. But where they do not, the idea seems more arbitrary. Moreover, it necessitates arbitrary rules: French law, for example, has since 1967 allowed an artist to cast no more than 12 original bronze editions from a model, with anything further deemed a reproduction.

And what of someone like Edgar Degas, who never produced a bronze in his lifetime and whose entire corpus of mostly wax or clay sculptures--with the exception of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, which he had exhibited in Paris in 1881--was discovered, in a state of disrepair, following his death in 1917? Given that there is scant, if any, evidence to suggest that Degas intended his sculptures to be cast in bronze, should all posthumous Degas bronzes be considered mere replicas? The 13.3m [pounds sterling] paid in 2009 at Sotheby's London for a Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer cast, at the behest of Degas' heirs, in 1922 at the Hebard foundry in Paris, suggests that many think not.

Over the past couple of years, much controversy has been generated by the 74 Degas 'lifetime plasters' supposedly discovered in 2004 at the Valsuani foundry outside Paris and from which 16 sets of bronzes have already been cast. If prevailing opinion can be swayed in favour of these plasters being authentic, and they can be demonstrated to predate--perhaps even from before the artist's death--the traditionally most valuable Hebard casts, then the market for Degas bronzes faces considerable upheaval. Degas scholars, perhaps fearing litigation, have remained pointedly obscure. Large sums of money are at stake, so the matter cannot be described as trivial; nonetheless a faint air of absurdity is undeniable, especially considering Brancusi's pronouncement of his Bird in Space: 'This is an original work. I made it myself, with my own hands, from the casting in rough bronze.'

Oscar Humphries, Editor

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Title Annotation:EDITOR'S LETTER
Author:Humphries, Oscar
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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