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Exhibitions Close Up - Bernini: Sculpting in Clay

Sheryl E. Reiss, Author

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Curatorial Insights


SER:  I’m speaking today with C. D. Dickerson III, Curator of European Art at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, and one of the co-curators of the recent exhibition Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, which was seen last fall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and this spring at the Kimbell. My first question concerns the origins of the exhibition.  What gave you the idea for this show and how were the venues selected?
CDD:  Having written my doctoral dissertation on Bernini’s beginnings with terra-cotta models, I had long dreamed of doing an exhibition centered on them. I also knew there was a great scholarly need for a true catalogue of the models. Selecting the venues was easy enough. One was to be my museum, the Kimbell, which boasts three great Bernini models. For the second, I approached Ian Wardropper, then at the Met, who had served on my dissertation committee and was a close colleague. To secure the loans, the exhibition needed the weight of an institution like the Met, and I also knew Ian that was interested in the material and would be game to collaborate. 

SER:  The exhibition was co-curated by Dr. Wardropper, now Director of the Frick Collection, and by Anthony Sigel of the Harvard Art Museums. Can you tell me a bit more about that collaboration and your respective roles?

CDD:  Tony has distinguished himself as the foremost expert on Bernini’s modeling techniques. From the start, we decided that we wanted each entry to be a true collaboration, to integrate matters of art history (my domain) and matters of technique (his). I felt the entries, which were geared toward attribution, had to weigh all the available evidence, and this meant we had to work closely together on each one—from conception to writing.

SER:  An international exhibition of this scale and scope takes years to plan.  How long was the genesis of the show and what were some of the issues encountered in securing so many extraordinary loans? Given the fragility of the terra-cotta medium, were there special precautions you needed to take and were there some objects that couldn’t travel?

CDD: The exhibition took at least five years to pull together. The loans were more straightforward than I would have imagined.  Once lenders heard that Harvard had committed its collection to the exhibition, doors more or less opened. Everybody recognized the unique opportunity the exhibition represented. Sure, there were some tough loans. And sure, some loans could not travel for reasons of size and fragility. But by and large we experienced wonderful collegiality from potential lenders everywhere, and I think we were also able to impress lenders that we would not ask for their loans until we could assure ourselves that their loans were safe to travel.

SER:  What were some of your goals and ambitions for the show?  One of the remarkable features of both the exhibition and its catalogue is the seamless integration of art historical and conservation issues. Was this envisioned from the outset or did the approach develop over time?

CDD:  Yes, as previously mentioned, the integration of art historical and conservation issues was envisioned from the start.  Tony represented too great an asset not to make use of his specialized knowledge in a substantial way. Trying to come to terms with attributions—in effect, creating a catalogue raisonné—was probably our greatest priority. As the exhibition neared, and once the catalogue had gone to press, we were able to shift gears and focus on bringing the material to life for the public.

SER: The settings for the exhibition in New York and Fort Worth differed dramatically. Can you tell us something about how you conceived the show at the Kimbell and how Louis Kahn’s architecture provided a frame for the works exhibited?

CDD: I was very keen to exploit the Kimbell’s famed natural light, which was difficult with drawings.  Fortunately, in the section on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, there were no drawings, so I could open the ceiling and let light spill down onto the models, which were set in front of a loose recreation of the bridge. We had a lot larger space with which to work than the Met, and this permitted me to use many more nearly life-size illustrations of finished sculptures, which certainly heightened the drama of the installation. I also found the travertine walls—the travertine was quarried in Tivoli where Bernini would have obtained his—to be wonderfully sympathetic to the models. Finally, I was proud to incorporate two films not shown at the Met that feature Tony and me discussing the models.

SER:  In 1673 a contemporary of Bernini’s wrote “You need to draw using your eye, that is, imprint everything in your mind, and always make sketches and drawings of your different ideas keeping in mind the advice of great men. Put one thought after the other down on paper, judge them, consider their errors against ancient and modern works, make modelli in clay, always preserve that idea even in the most elaborately worked things….” Drawings played a critical role in the exhibition, complementing the terra-cotta models on display.  Can you say a few words about the role of drawings in Bernini’s creative process and in the exhibition?

CDD:  I did not want the exhibition to give the false impression that Bernini only used models to plan. I felt it important to show how drawing and modeling were complementary processes for him. It still remains a matter of discussion how—even if—he went back and forth between the two media.  I do think he turned increasingly to models as he planned a figure, which is not to say he did not revert to drawing at later stages to plan details.  I also liked showing how varied his drawing style is, and how varied his modeling style can be, too.

SER:  Every exhibition has nightmare moments in its realization.  Can you tell us about those you experienced with this show?  And what were the absolute high points?

CDD:  The catalogue had many tight deadlines, and I was worried sick for more than a year that  it would never be finished on time. Seeing the first copy was certainly one of the high points. The opening in New York was also very special, particularly rounding the corner and seeing the banner flying over the front door of the Met.  The warm response to the films I showed at the Kimbell was also wonderful.

SER: Bernini: Sculpting in Clay closed in early May of 2013.  Now that the exhibition has been seen in two venues, accompanied by several events including lectures, symposia, and study days for scholars, I wonder if you might reflect on what you—and we—have learned. Perhaps you could tell us, in your view, the five most important things that emerged from the exhibition and the various events associated with it.

CDD:  First, there are a number of models that can now be firmly attributed to Bernini that could not before, such as the figures from the Ca’ d’Oro in Venice.

Second, I think we showed the difficulty of ever knowing for certain whether some models are by him, such as the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Third, I enjoyed confirming that Bernini had a range of modeling styles—that we should not limit his output to “loose” bozzetti or “tight” modelli. He had a middle range and was happy to employ that middle range depending on the circumstances of the commission.

Fourth, I think we have gained a more nuanced picture of how Bernini ran his studio—certainly the extent to which he trusted his top assistants to produce models that he might certify as his own.

And finally, I am grateful to Tomaso Montanari for contributing an important essay to the catalogue dealing with collecting and the taste for terra-cotta models in Bernini’s Rome and how Bernini seems to have played an active role in pushing the taste for his models. 

SER:  On behalf of and visitors to Exhibitions Close Up - Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, I'd like to thank you very much for your insights on the exhibition.
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