Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Work of Art in the Age of 3D Scanning

Replica Relief of Three Dancing Nymphs at Hollyhock House. Photo by Cosmo Wenman
Last November Hollyhock House unveiled a digitally scanned plaster replica of a Roman Relief of Three Dancing Nymphs. The replica's marble original had been purchased by Aline Barnsdall and displayed in her Frank Lloyd Wright home's loggia in 1922. It was considered the most important work of art in Barnsdall's modest art collection. The marble was sold and is now owned by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. For the time being, it's on view at the Getty Center, along with other SBMA antiquities.
Original Relief of Three Dancing Nymphs. Collection of Santa Barbara Museum of Art

The "original" SBMA marble is also a replica. It's believed to be a Roman-period Athenian copy (25 BC–100 AD) of a now-lost 4th-century BC original by the great Praxiteles. Simulacra of Greek classics were sold throughout the Roman empire. This one was found in Libya about 1895.

It's not unusual for an architectural site to replace a sculpture it no longer owns with a life-size reproduction. It's even done with paintings, such as the fake impressionists at Sunnylands, Walter Annenberg's Rancho Mirage estate.

A century ago, American museums displayed plaster copies of European masterworks. That went out of favor (and is now having a semi-revival, in the form of nostalgic displays of plaster casts at some university museums).

The Hollyhock House plaster, created by Cosmo Wenman using the latest technology, raises new questions. Plaster is not marble, but it would be hard to fault the sculptural precision of Wenman's replica. It has generally been well received.

In the past reproductions were dismissed because they lacked the Benjamin-esque "aura" of the original. Meaning roughly:

(1) Copies are bad copies, done by lesser artisans lacking the original artist's skill;
(2) Copies are only copies, having little-or-no place in an art history centering on originality;
(3) Copies are cheap copies, available to many and too common to rate serious attention.

Technology seems poised to knock point (1) out of consideration. As to (2) and (3), Wenman has an Etsy store that demands another Walter Benjamin to digest.
Cosmo Wenman replicas of the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory

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