Ancient Works at the Handwerker
Art history professor brings Met treasures to Ithaca.
by Christine Szudzik '06
New life for old treasures: Corinthian capital, C.E. 6
In 1986 art history professor Nancy Ramage began to formulate an idea to bring a collection of plaster casts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Ithaca College. It took 19 years to bring that vision to life.
The Handwerker Gallery kicked off its 2005-6 season with "Tradition and Innovation: Plaster and Page," the culmination of Ramage's project. The exhibition paired reproductions of original sculptures, cast between 2144 B.C.E. and C.E. 1787, with photographs of classic art taken from a modern perspective.
Cocurated by Ramage and gallery director and assistant professor of art history Cheryl Kramer, the exhibition emphasized the impact of classical art on contemporary art. The 36 plaster casts on long-term loan to the College from the Met come from places such as Iraq, Egypt, and Italy. Photographs taken in Rome and Milan by Gregory Page, an associate professor of art at Cornell University, were enlarged and displayed alongside the plaster casts to highlight the similarities between the different works of art. Kramer had first seen Page's work when it was displayed at the Handwerker in 2004, and realized that his prints would be a perfect partner for the casts.
"Page readily acknowledges his sources and combines them with contemporary techniques to create a body of work that is informed by the past, while undeniably contemporary," Kramer says. The casts themselves certainly have a rich past. During the late 19th century the Met acquired numerous plaster casts and displayed them prominently in the entrance hall of the building. Plaster casts were used to teach artists how to accurately draw the human figure. However, artists increasingly turned to abstract work and modeling fell out of favor. The plaster casts were left to languish in a New York warehouse.
In the mid-1980s the Met, running out of storage space, began to loan out the casts to educational institutions. Ramage heard about this and envisioned bringing some to Ithaca. When she traveled to New York to make her selections, she was disheartened to see some of the casts in poor condition.
"They were just lying there. Some pieces were broken," says Ramage. "From an era when everybody admired these works, they were now shunted to the side."
But Ramage came to the rescue. She and a succession of her students spent the next 15 years cleaning the casts. Students used artists' soft erasers to painstakingly remove years of soot from the casts.
Rossellino's Madonna and Child arrived in Ithaca pitch black. Kathleen Foley '93 took the piece on as a project and, after many hours of labor, returned it to its pristine and white state.
Foley attended the show, and Ramage says it was an emotional experience to reunite with her former student. "She wrote a really nice comment in the guestbook in which she said she thought she knew the casts because she had worked on them, but coming back and seeing them beautifully lit and exhibited in a way that she had never seen them before was very meaningful," Ramage reports.
Ramage initially wanted the casts for their educational value, and indeed they have been used in various ways by hundreds of students over the years since they arrived on campus. Art students have been analyzing and drawing from the casts. Kramer's Introduction to Museology students gave tours of the exhibit. Students in Ramage's Sculpture at First Hand class researched and wrote analyses of the casts; some of their papers were adapted for use in the exhibit's catalog.
But this exhibition marked the first time the educational values of these treasures could be enjoyed by a broader audience. Even though the show has closed, Ramage doesn't plan on locking the casts away. A few are already on display in the library, while others will soon find homes elsewhere on campus.
And as Ramage hoped when she first saw the casts 19 years ago, the entire College community is able to appreciate the beauty of these precious objects. "Now," she says, "we recognize how valuable they are."
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