The Gipsformerei, Berlin’s plaster casting workshop, celebrates this year the 200th anniversary of its foundation in 1819. Rising to the occasion, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin lay on a special exhibition, “Near Life”, to showcase the technique of taking casts from life or nature. Handed down since the days of antiquity, this technique has been in use throughout the centuries to achieve close sculptural approximations to life.
The exhibition is predicated on the idea that taking casts was the method of choice to – quite literally – get closest to life (and death). Roughly 200 exhibits – sculptures as well as paintings, books, graphics and photographs – put the significance of life casts for the history of sculpture centre stage. The exhibition’s trajectory extends from the cast of a crocodile and different kinds of life and death masks to iconic works of art in whose creation casting techniques played a crucial role.
“Near Life” is the first comprehensive presentation of the Gipsformerei holdings. As the world’s largest manufactory of its kind that is still operational today, the Gipsformerei boasts a collection comprising several thousand master models, moulds and painting models. The exhibition seeks to put on display a representative cross-section of these holdings and complements it both with items from other collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and outstanding objects on loan from Germany and abroad. A key role is accorded to contemporary art: it is uniquely suited to show how casts emancipated themselves from the subservient status of technical aids to works of art in their own right.
The exhibition is a premiere of sorts for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in that it opens up a new venue on Museum Island: the special-exhibition space in the newly built James Simon Galerie. The Gipsformerei therefore returns to its historical roots for its anniversary. In the 1840s, the Königlich-Preussische Gipsgussanstalt took up the basement floor of the Altes Museum, while the first floor of the Neues Museum was given over in its entirety to the collection of plaster casts. The exhibition highlights the close connection between the Gipsformerei and the sculptural holdings of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin with a “plaster cast trail”, consisting of select interventions in the permanent exhibitions on Museum Island.