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.