The Cast Collection - The story
1800 – 1900: White, pure, and ideal forms
The collection was founded in 1896 as part of the collections at the National Gallery. More than 2500 casts filled the entire ground floor of the gallery, where they were displayed in chronological order, ending where the collections of original works of art from Europe and Denmark took over on the first floor.
The white, pure, ideal forms of the casts were greatly appreciated in the nineteenth century. This collection of copies of sculptural masterpieces from antiquity to the Renaissance was created to show how the development of the human form in art embodied the spirit of European humanism, striving for freedom, democracy, and beauty.
1900 – 1966: Modernity and its discontents
Yet the beginning of Modernity left less time than ever for the veneration of the past. As the arts began to finally gain freedom from the burden of tradition, interest in casts and in the past waned. But still it was considered beneficial for the bourgeoisie to know the history of art that demonstrated the superiority of Western culture, so the collection had educational purposes.
As Empires fell, totalitarian revolutions overthrew the old order of things, and art became avant-garde during the first half of the twentieth century, antiquity and copies were left in a no man’s land. The casts were even more infused with the story of western, white, male superiority since they appealed to the Nazi and Fascist taste for antiquity. Thus, the rise and fall of empires coincided with the decline of the taste for antiquity.
The second half of the twentieth century brought doom to the cast collections. Modern art excelled in producing new, original art and copies were no longer needed for the education of artists or the public. After all, by the irony of history, the perfection of man had led Europe to Nazism, Communism, and world war, rather than towards democracy and peace.
In 1966, the Royal Cast Collection was moved away from the National Gallery to a barn in the countryside. Some five hundred works did not survive the transportation and the stay there, and it is no longer easy to get new copies of those lost. Besides, who would pay for it?
Yet some saw the collection as being made up of outstanding copies, particularly since in many cases the originals have deteriorated so much from cleaning or acid rain that the old copies are now in better shape than the originals. Besides, this particular collection is one of the largest remaining cast collections, because most were dismissed or even destroyed. The copies themselves have become works of art that tell a story of their own.
1984 – : Rebirth and reorder
In 1984 those who saw the value of the cast collection managed to have it transferred from the barn to the West-Indian Warehouse (dating from 1781) on the harbour front to be reassembled. It was rearranged, not chronologically as art history would have it, but archaeologically, according to where it was found and seen in ancient times.
Temple-sculpture is shown together in the ground floor. Sculptures too big to be moved are also in the back of the building. The workshop is also situated here, and you can ask the guards to get access to it, if it is not open.
Antique, religious, and funerary sculpture is on display on the first floor to the left of the stairs. Antiques collected by Italian noblemen from modern times are to the right. A funerary section leads to an open storage of replicas or damaged sculptures. Statuary from Roman villas from Rome, Pompeii, or Herculaneum occupies the back of the building.
On the second floor the Middle Ages are to the left of the stairs and the Renaissance to the right as well as behind the staircase. Imperial Roman art, later funerary sculpture, and the huge collection of busts occupy spaces of their own as well. Some large moulds are laid on the floor. We still make new copies on demand, and these moulds were used to cast a collection of copies for the Academy of Arts in Beijing, China, as a gift to make up for the damage done to their cast collection during the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in the 1960s.