What the Sculptor Yelled at Me

One summer we were trying to finish a huge relief in Carrara marble for a park in Spain. The sculptor himself was there working along with us to hurry things. If it hadn´t been so late—I think the inauguration of the park was in two weeks—he would have left the complete execution to Fernando, the copyist. But now he had had to come to Madrid from Valencia and chisel all day with us, working almost non-stop. To add to the stress, Fernando had fallen sick and was home in bed. He was the only one you could trust to carve out the figure accurately and quickly. The rest of us—six or seven helpers and the artist himself—were just part-time carvers, a bit unsure, a bit awed by the project. We needed Fernando to tell us how to work. And now there was no Fernando.

This was in August and August in Spain is infernally hot. Sculpture workshops were always half-outdoors because of the dust problem. Our big blocks of Carrara stood right in the sun, though we had set up one of these big cafeteria umbrellas to work under. The artist was over forty and out of shape, not used to working outdoors—not used to WORKING. The stress and the long hours almost killed him. I remember how terrible he looked with his face all swollen and red. He spent all day wiping the sweat off his face and neck with his hanky. “I´m going to die,” he’d say. And it looked possible.

During our lunch-break he would complain to me. He never had much appetite but I was starved and would jam a long sandwich of Spanish bread into my mouth and squirt a liter of water right down my throat from the big clay botijo while I commiserated with him. He was disgusted at Fernando´s workmen and their easy-going ways. “They don´t have the foggiest idea what they´re doing,” he said, wiping his face with that dirty hanky. “Idiots—worse than idiots! Just LOOK at that!” It was a piece of his big plaster model that they had been copying.

Our work was to copy his model exactly in marble. The model was the same size as the stone version and so very large. Its sections were as big as barn doors and though they were reinforced at the back with bamboo sticks and esparta grass, they were fragile. The workmen had no use for the big model once they had taken their measurements and they kicked it around—literally. If it got in their way, even for a moment, they broke it in half or crushed it and dragged it to one corner of the shop.
“I spent five months modelling the damn thing,” whined the Valencian artist, looking away from the wreckage in pain.

“But all the measurements have been taken,” I said, to console him. “And the marble figures look right.”

That was the wrong thing to say. He turned on ME. “So you are the same as them! You don’t know which is the work and which is the copy. You and these stooges think that the marble thing they are mucking up is the flucking work of art. Wrong! Wrong! And he swung around on his block—for we ate on blocks of marble—and pointed to the mangled plaster model in a corner. “THAT, confused American apprentice, is the work of art—THAT! NOT the marble. NOT any of its reproductions. Do I make myself clear? Maybe you can learn that—these morons are too thick in the head.”

I thought it over for a long time afterwards. To him, the sculptor’s plaster model was like the old photographer´s cliché. The photographer would make you all the photos you wanted but he hung onto his cliché because, to his mind, that was the picture itself. Of itself it was nothing, of course. You couldn´t hang a cliché on the wall or put it in a frame. But no photo could be made without it.
Or let’s say the Valencian sculptor considered his plaster model a kind of architect’s plan. An architect handed it to the technicians and the engineers when finished. The building itself was their business.
In the case of a large monument it is only reasonable that the sculptor hire helpers of all kinds. But many artists like the Valencian believed that even their small work could be relegated to technicians. He and his kind were mere modellers and they were able to survive only as long as copyists like Fernando were available to them.

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9 Responses to What the Sculptor Yelled at Me

  1. erikatakacs says:

    This is a very personal experience, swallows, very interesting, you’re such a good storyteller. Fernando was a very special guy, and very smart to know his limitations. From your account I sense you don’t have much respect for modellers, at least the ones you met personally…

  2. kimiam says:

    I’ve had things from the opposite view around here plenty of times. I work at an art center with a public ceramics studio and there are people who do nothing but copy the work of artists and sign their own name to it and sell it as though it’s their own artwork. Most are not that good, but some are very good at copying. Cannot come up with an original idea to save their lives but love to produce stuff and lack ethics. Copiers are a dime a dozen around here, but that’s not working in stone.

    Stone requires excellent craftsmanship. Sounds like Fernando was a great guy. It’s a shame he didn’t get much credit publicly for his skill as a craftsman.

  3. wpm1955 says:

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading this interesting experience!

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine
    winewriter.wordpress.com

  4. 100swallows says:

    I have nothing against modellers, erika. I like good sculpture, in any presentation. The trouble with clay is that it dries and desintegrates, so you have to either fire it or “transfer” it to some other more permanent material. Modelling is just a stage of the work.
    The artist’s biggest objection to a copyist’s work ought to be the change he makes in it. They all complain about what happens to their statues in the foundry. “Nowadays,” says Louis Slobodkin in his funny book, “technicians can give about any color to your bronze statue when cast—and they will if you don’t stop them.” Half a dozen specialists might work on your bronze and each alters it in some way. Cellini wouldn’t stand for that and tried to cast his figures “his way” and took the blows. I could always see Fernando’s style on the works he copied for others. How much more must they have seen it. But they all buckled. “In this day and age you have to lower your standards,” one of them told me, “or you won’t survive as an artist.” Yeah.

  5. 100swallows says:

    kimiam: I know what you mean about people who need something to copy. Everywhere you see near-copies and take-offs on famous works that are called “a Homage to” Picasso or Dalí or somebody; or worse, they post no reference to the original. The galleries are full of them. That shows you how hard it is to come up with an original idea.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Madame Monet, for saying so.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    I can sympatize with them, swallows. What if the piece doesn’t come out as they intended to? Once you have it out of your hands, you have no control over them. Even a clay piece transforms in the kiln radically sometimes, isn’t it. It can be quite a disappointment. But it can transform into something wonderful too. And then there are no more complaints! It’s only human. But I agree, foundry workers, carvers, assistants, they should get the recognition they deserve for their hard work.

  8. wrjones says:

    Another good story. Funny but it makes me want to carve in marble.

  9. 100swallows says:

    You should have been there with us, Bill. You would have put that Valencian sculptor in a better mood and had us all giggling.
    You would have loved Fernando’s workshop too with all the hundreds of plaster and polyester casts and the stone statues we had going in ten or fifteen kinds of marble.

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