A History of the Royal Cast Collection

The Royal Cast Collection was founded in 1895 as part of Statens Museum for Kunst. Today it consists of more than 2000 plaster casts.

1700-1900: White Man’s White Art

More than 2000 plaster casts after sculptures from all of Europe. What is the point of them? It is an open question we would like to find new answers for. The scientific foundations of the collection were laid down in the 18th century by the founding father of archaeology and art history, Johan Joachim Winckelmann (1717-67). He detested the Baroque art of his own era, which is nowhere to be found here for that very reason; and instead he favoured art from Antiquity, which dominates the collection.

Winckelmann’s taste became the taste of neoclassicism, which dominated large parts of European art until around 1900.Winckelmann aimed for objectivity, but his personal preferences occasionally clouded his judgment.

The Royal Cast Collection was founded in 1895 as part of Statens Museum for Kunst. The work was funded and headed by ”The Brewer” Carl Jacobsen (1842-1914) of Carlsberg fame.

Approximately 2,500 statues took up the entire lower floor of the museum, presented in chronological order from around 600 BCE to around 1600 CE (Antiquity, Middle Ages, the Reniassance), the time of the emergence of a Danish national art. The underlying idea was to offer the good citizen an encyclopaedic overview of how the representation of the human form in Western art had undergone a development that ran parallel to the European history towards an ever-greater degree of freedom, democracy, awareness, and aesthetic sense.

The collection was established at a time when European countries were still colonial powers, a time when white man and his art and culture were commonly regarded as superior. The white plaster casts tie in perfectly with this overall view.

1900 – Present: Tradition in Peril

After 1900 traditional values had fallen into a permanent state of crisis. Revolutions and wars showed that white man’s struggle did not always lead to greater freedom. Several old colonial powers toppled and fell after World War I. While avant-garde art made a virtue out of mocking tradition and the past, Totalitarian Communists, Nazis, and Fascists embraced the formal idiom of Antiquity.

When abstract art entered the art scene after World War II plaster copies were no longer required; neither for drawing after nor for instruction and edification. In 1966 the Royal Cast Collection was carted away to languish in a leaky barn outside Copenhagen.

However, a  group of people mourned the fate of the plaster casts. After all, the casts were of very high quality, and many of the originals after which they had been cast had suffered damage due to excessive cleaning, carried out specifically to remove their original paint, or due to acid rain. The casts were, then, in better condition than the sculptures they were copies of.  What is more, the Danish collection was one of the largest collections of its kind left in the world after many other collections had been destroyed.

In 1984 the friends of the cast collection succeed in having the casts relocated to the West India Company Warehouse (built by C. F. Harsdorff 1780-81). Seventeen years were spent gathering, repairing, and re-staging the casts. In 2002 all employees at the collection were fired and opening hours reduced in order to save costs.

We still keep the collection up and going: we focus on co-creation where participants change the collection as they work with it; You can order guided tours and try your hand with plaster at the workshop; it’s an exciting place to take photos or to draw; many visitors are happy we have free restrooms.

The place  tell many stories. It is a strange coincidence to have white man’s white art on display at the warehouse where the goods (rum and sugar) produced by black slaves once were stored.

To follow / like the cast collection: Facebook and smk.dk/en

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Updated: 26.apr.2018
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