Almost nothing could be better calculated to excite the interest of modern connoisseurs of sculpture than an exhibition of 18th- and 19th-century European terra-cotta models. The intimate scale, the spontaneity of the modeling, the poetic appeal of the classical subjects and the sheer vivacity of the invention-above all, the nimble command of both convention and innovation-guarantee a lively response from a public that has come to place a special aesthetic value on the sketches of the masters.
Most of our experience with artists’ sketches is, of course, confined to drawings and other works on paper. This is another reason why the sculptural “sketches” that have been assembled in the exhibition called Playing with Fire: European Terracotta Models, 1740-1840 , at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is at once a delight and a revelation. We’re rarely given an opportunity to study the earliest stages of a sculptor’s conception and the development of his subject in a three-dimensional medium. Clay, the initial medium of these models, is too malleable a material to sustain portability and display. Baking the clay (“terra cotta” means, literally, “baked earth”) serves to make the sketch more or less permanent.
As we are reminded by Guilhem Scherf in an essay for the exhibition’s catalog: “The interest in terracotta sculpture in France began to spread in the late 1730’s. It was consistently represented at the Salon of the Academié Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which became a regular event in 1737. Already at the time one could see sketches, models, and, less frequently, full-fledged works in terracotta. These small sculptures were often exhibited and naturally attracted the attention of the art public.”
It was a measure of the great appeal which these sculptural models enjoyed with the art public that in 1764, the German writer Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the great codifier of classical taste, cautioned artists not to be carried away by the spontaneity and improvisation that clay modeling invites, lest the classical spirit of their endeavors be sacrificed to an exuberance and subjectivity that negates the ideals of classical art. Our modern taste exults, of course, in the very excesses that Winckelmann deplored, and given some of the extremes of modern expressionism that we have learned to admire, it could hardly be otherwise.
I think there’s also something else that separates us from the implications of Winckelmann’s censure, and that is our distance from the classical subjects that dominate the exhibition. Few visitors to the Playing with Fire show are likely to be as steeped in the mythology of the gods and goddesses of classical antiquity as the artists who created these sculptures or, for that matter, the public that took pleasure in them 250 years ago in the Paris salons. For Winckelmann and the public that shared his knowledge of and veneration for the classical past, these mythical personages were still household deities, as it were. Together with the iconic figures of Christianity, they defined an entire view of history and civilization.
For museumgoers today, the identities and exploits of mythical figures are likely to remain vague, if not entirely unknown. It’s the sculptural command of the male and female anatomies of the gods that we admire. And since making love and making war were the principal activities of these gods, there’s enough sex and violence on display to satisfy even the most voracious modern appetites.
But though the sheer virtuosity of the modeling may be sufficient for many viewers-probably a majority-those who enjoy some knowledge of the writings of Ovid, Plutarch, and other Greek and Roman authors will find another level of interest in the exhibition. Playing with Fire takes us into the workshop, so to speak, of the sculptor’s imagination as it transforms a primeval product of nature-moist earth-into the poetry of civilization, our civilization, the civilization of the West.
For those who need guidance through the complex world of the gods of antiquity, the catalog commentaries written by Mr. Scherf, James David Draper and their colleagues offer ample information. Indeed, the beautifully produced catalog for Playing with Fire is an education in itself, as well as a delight to read, and the exhibition itself is one that many visitors will want to revisit once they’ve seen it.
Playing with Fire: European Terracotta Models, 1740-1840 remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 25, 2004. Another version of the exhibition, Sergel and His Roman Circle: European Terracottas, 1760-1814 , will travel to the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (May 12 to Aug. 29, 2004).