William D. Cohan’s article suggests that the art world today is divided into two warring camps about 74 recently revealed Degas plasters.
In fact, far more consensus than controversy surrounds these plasters than the article allows. Close examination of the plasters indicates that they were not computer-generated, but were made by taking molds from original models. Furthermore, some 300 internal measurement comparisons document that these plasters are almost universally 1 to 3 percent bigger than the modéle set, now in the Norton Simon Museum, used by Hébrard to cast Degas bronzes. Therefore, they could not have been made from any of the Hébrard bronzes.
To date, every expert in sculpture who has closely studied the Degas plasters, including Arthur Beale, chair emeritus of the department of conservation and collections management at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, agrees that if a particular plaster was not computer generated or cast from a Degas Hébrard bronze, only two possible conclusions can be drawn. The first conclusion is that at some point the plasters were cast from Degas’s original wax, plastilene, or clay models. The second is that at some point the plasters were cast from wax, plastilene, or clay COPIES of Degas’s models. No other viable possibilities remain.
Another point of consensus is that the plasters exhibit both clear similarities to the Degas Hébrard bronzes (the numerous close similarities are why some scholars initially considered them to be foundry plasters) as well as differences. Because the differences on some are so pronounced, Beale and others have concluded that these plasters were not made to deceive, i.e., they are not fakes.
The key issue has therefore boiled down to this: Those who support the first conclusion say that the similarities are due to the fact that the plasters were cast from Degas’s original waxes. They say the differences between the plasters and the Hébrard bronzes (all cast after Degas’s death) are because the plasters were made while Degas was alive, after which time he reworked or repaired some models. Then, after Degas’s death, additional repairs were made.
Those who support the second conclusion argue that the similarities between the plasters and the Hébrard bronzes are because these plasters were cast from very carefully executed copies of Degas’s waxes. Regarding the differences, they argue that the copyist made mistakes or made his or her own creative variations on Degas’s wax.
As is the accepted practice within the world of art authentication, when a genuine debate exists about the authenticity of works of art, all the documentation is analyzed and the debate focuses on the objects themselves. The works of art are present, studied in detail, and a variety of experts consider all possibilities in an open forum. If there is still controversy over an attribution to a major artist, an exhibition is organized, such as the one at the Metropolitan Museum on the Young Archer attributed to Michelangelo.
When the January 19th meeting discussed in the ARTnews article was held, the Little Dancer plaster was not there to be examined, nor were the dozens of other Degas plasters that have recently been cleaned and X-rayed.
In this case we ultimately must either accept the first conclusion or gather evidence to support the second one, in which case answers need to be provided to the following questions.
How was this copyist able to know details about Degas’s waxes that have only come out in recently published X-rays? For example, the left buttock on the plaster for Dancer Holding Her Right Foot (Hébrard no. 68) is anatomically correct. The left buttock on the wax today and the Hébrard bronzes of this model is quite different, and very awkward. In their excellent catalogue of the Degas bronzes in the Norton Simon Museum, Daphne Barbour and Shelley Sturman publish for the first time an X-ray that shows the left buttock on Degas’s original wax of this model was damaged and later put back onto the wax figure using three nails. Without knowledge of the recently published X-ray of the wax, how could a copyist know to make the left buttock different?
Why is there no documentation of any kind that wax, clay, or plastilene copies were ever made from Degas’s waxes? It must have been a huge effort to make armatures, then build up a figure with wax, find bases and hardware to make 74 copies that match Degas’s original models. Why hasn’t even one of these carefully made copies survived?
How was a copyist able to duplicate the size of Degas’s original wax model without the wax being present? Arthur Beale concluded that the majority of these plasters must date before 1955, before Degas’s original waxes left for America. Recent carbon dating tests of abaca fibers taken from one plaster also indicate a pre-Atomic era dating, i.e., before 1955. If the original waxes were present, why make 74 wax copies?
All the participants in the January 19th meeting and other interested experts should convene in an open forum and carefully examine the plasters and supporting information.
If the first conclusion is correct, it would mean these plasters are a great art historical discovery because they document what Degas’s wax sculptures looked like at an earlier moment in time.
If the second conclusion is correct, these plasters record extraordinary copies made by some highly skilled sculptor who at times faithfully recorded Degas’s original waxes and at other times made his or her own variations.
In either case, there is need for transparency. It is time to bring the debate out into the open.
Gregory Hedberg has a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Dr. Hedberg will be giving a paper entitled “New Insights into Degas’ Creative Process in Sculpture” at a Symposium on French art at the Institute of Fine Arts on March 6.
William Cohan’s article, “A Controversy over Degas,” added fuel to the fire of debate surrounding the discovery of the Degas plasters, and frankly I’m grateful. Mr. Cohan exquisitely detailed the innuendos, rumors, unfounded claims, and other uninformed pronouncements made by those who wish to remain in the shadows and speak anonymously “off the record.”
It is clear from some of the baseless statements, such as those made by the unnamed auction house executive, who, among other false assertions, claimed “the bronzes don’t have the same kind of quality and definition of the originals [the Hébrard bronzes],” never inspected a single bronze cast by Valsuani from one of the plasters….
All anyone needs to do is look at one of the earlier bronzes cast by Hébrard from the bronze modí¨le, and compare it side-by-side with a Valsuani bronze of the same figure cast from a plaster. The differences are strikingly in favor of the Valsuani bronze….
Unlike a painting, which would be comparatively easy to copy, to attempt making these 74 plasters the copyist would need physical possession of a complete set of bronzes, which in itself would be impossible. But assuming one did, then the copyist would have to take dozens and dozens of photographs of each detail on each bronze, thousands of photos in all, and then make hundreds of extremely precise point-to-point measurements on each bronze, such as the distance, in millimeters, from the tip of the dancer’s nose to the tip of the large toe on her right foot. Then one would have to take into account the shrinkage of bronze during the casting process, and from there enlarge each detail and each form on each plaster by the appropriate percentage. The process would take years, and no matter how talented the copyist might be, it would be an almost impossible task.
That is among the reasons why, along with the strong physical and technical evidence, I can unequivocally state, as an expert in sculpture and casting techniques, these plasters were made directly from Degas’s waxes at an early point in time (before Hébrard took molds from the waxes in 1919).
And while it is true we have a vested interest in stating the case, others have a vested interest as well. Consider all those who sold Hébrard bronzes in the past and those who published research….
Those who attended the January 19th meeting reportedly did not wish to go on record for fear of litigation. It is a misplaced concern. We are not asking them to determine authenticity. Rather, we are simply asking for their opinions as to why they believe the plasters may not be lifetime to Degas, and we only seek a dialogue. This is why I firmly believe a symposium should be organized so all views can be presented in a public forum with an open exchange of ideas. It is the only way the truth will emerge.
The Degas Sculpture Project Ltd
William D. Cohan replies:
The technical experts referred to were among those present at the secret meeting. As the article states, all those present at the meeting have declined to discuss their opinions of the “lifetime plasters” because they are fearful of the lawsuits that might result.