Museum Secrets

Indecent Sculptures for Decent Museums

December 29, 2020 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Jim Harris Season 1 Episode 2
Museum Secrets
Indecent Sculptures for Decent Museums
Show Notes Transcript

Jim Harris joins host Lucie Dawkins to talk about detachable genitalia in the Cast Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum, and the history of prudishness in ancient art. Jim Harris is the Andrew W Mellon Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean.

Cast of the Laocoön group – View this online

If you want to take a closer look at the Laocoön cast Jim discusses in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters:  Lucie Dawkins and Jim Harris

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean.  I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators

Today, we are taking a trip into Gallery 14. It’s a treasure trove. It houses the Ashmolean’s cast collection, and it’s crammed with plaster copies of great Greek and Roman sculptures. In among them, you might come across Teaching curator Jim Harris, looking closely at some unexpected places. Here he is to tell us more. 

Jim: This is a story about casts.  And it is a story about three cast collections.

And it is a story that involves a certain amount of straight talking about a gentleman’s unmentionables.

You have been warned.

Now, the cast gallery at the Ashmolean is one of the most interesting places in the museum to watch visitors.

The thing about casts is that people don’t know quite what to make of them, so it’s a place of puzzled faces and whispered conversations.

re they just copies of pieces of sculpture?  Or are they pieces of sculpture in their own right?

Are they ‘art’ or ‘craft’?  Or are they fakes?

To make a cast of a complex piece of sculpture is an exacting process.  Moulds taken from the original, comprising many separate sections, are painstakingly assembled to be filled with plaster and then carefully deconstructed to reveal a near perfect reproduction.  Sometimes, the surface is smoothed to remove the lines marking the joints between the mould-sections, and tinted or coloured, for example to transform the plaster into the appearance of bronze.

Sometimes, though, the cast is more cunningly complicated even than that as I discovered one day a couple of years ago, when I received a text message from a colleague.

The message read:

“weird favour.

The Ashmolean’s plaster cast of the Laocoön….

Could you take a picture of its crotch for me?

V curious about whether it has a detachable penis.”

Now, this is not the place to reveal the identity of the colleague concerned, but let me just say that they occupy a position of substantial eminence in the world of academic art history, far beyond the horizons of little old Oxford.

The stakes, then, were clearly high.

I got to work.

Now, the Laocoön is one of the greatest and most celebrated works of sculpture produced by the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean.

Discovered in a vineyard in Rome in 1506, it is an astonishing, virtuoso piece of carving, a visceral, moving portrayal in marble of human suffering and fear, as the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons are attacked and killed by giant sea serpents sent by the vengeful God, Poseidon.

After its excavation, artists clamoured to see it and it immediately entered their visual vocabulary in paint, print, bronze and more marble.

And of course, once it started to be copied in other media, people wanted to see the thing itself - or at least something close to it -  and so it came to pass that, in time, replicas began to be cast in plaster and found their way into collections all over Europe.

Which would have been fine, were it not for the fact that the tortured, twisted body of Laocoön himself had on display at the very centre of the composition, a fully realised, undisguised and unmistakable set of male genitalia.

Which would also have been fine, were it not for the fact that by the time the nineteenth century had come around, and with it a certain mania for the manufacture and display of casts of antique statuary, that sort of thing was, in polite circles at least, not fine at all.

And this is where the Eminent Art Historian comes in, and the second cast collection of the story.

The Royal Academy in London possesses many casts, including one of the Laocoön which the Eminent Art Historian had been drawing.

And, whilst drawing, the Eminent Art Historian noticed something.

The Royal Academy cast, which was donated in 1816 by no less a personage than the Prince Regent, was made in France in the early 19th century.  Now this was a moment when, despite the capacity of a cast to replicate precisely the appearance of a piece of sculpture, large-scale genital display was a matter of some delicacy and so the decision had been taken by the manufacturer to omit the offending, and potentially offensive appendage.

Where Laocoön’s, as it were, equipment should be, at the Royal Academy, there is, therefore, nothing but a hole.

A hole, once filled, perhaps, as the Eminent Art Historian suggested, by a detachable penis.

Which takes us back to the original question.

Did the Ashmolean cast of the Laocoön have one too?

Now I’ll admit, this was not the toughest research assignment of my academic career.

I went to the cast gallery.

I looked at Laocoön.

As requested, I photographed his crotch.

And I reached my conclusion.

He does not have a detachable penis.

The end.

And yet.

When we examine the evidence of other casts, it appears that the Ashmolean/Royal Academy binary of integrated versus removable penis is not the end of the story.

The mystery deepens.

And this is where the third cast collection of the story comes in and it is the Daddy of them all: the cast collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In the V&A is a magnificent cast of Michelangelo’s colossal David, poised and ready to fight Goliath.  He is presented, like Laocoön, as nature intended.

Late nineteenth-century England, however, was a place and time of peak squeamishness when it came to things being presented as nature intended, and this David was too much of a man for high-Victorian sensibilities.  So, round the back of his plinth, is another much smaller cast, which he once wore.  A cast of a leaf.  A fig leaf. 

Which begs the question of the Royal Academy Laocoön: is the hole there simply to accommodate a penis sometimes required to be absent?  Or is it to enable a seamless transition from brazen to modest by the simple substitution of appropriate foliage.

Unless the Royal Academy has the evidence tucked away in a members’ only area, we may, tragically, never know.

And where does that leave the Ashmolean’s proudly complete version of the ensemble?

Well, our cast came from the British Museum in 1933, in an age when nakedness (in art at least) had begun to emerge from the shadow of naughtiness and there was really no longer any need to cover our shame. So for us, a fully integrated penis and no detachable fig leaf.

It’s Laocoön, in all his glory.

So, casts.

Do they help us to understand the objects they replicate? Or merely the tastes of the people who commission them and the historical moment in which they are produced?

What this story tells us is that the answer is both/and.

A cast is a copy, certainly.  A precise reproduction providing an opportunity to study an original work of art that would otherwise be inaccessible by virtue of distance or destruction.

But a cast is also a reflection of a historical moment. Or rather two historical moments.

The moment when the original was manufactured; and the moment when the cast was made.

It is a document of its own time as well as the time of its prototype.

And our time too, I suppose, since we’re still so fascinated by these ghostly things.

And that’s why the cast gallery is confusing, because these are works of art with split personalities.

But it’s also why the cast gallery is wonderful - because, in all its cool stasis, it is a place where history will not stand still.

And that is why the story matters.

It matters that we look carefully at the objects we care for.

It matters that we notice differences in order to unpick our many histories.

In the end, it matters that the Ashmolean Laocoön does not have a detachable penis.

Lucie: If you want to see the Laocoön for yourself, then head for the cast gallery. He’s right in front of you as you go through the doors, wrestling a pile of bloodthirsty snakes. You can also find a picture of him in the podcast notes. 

Now, Jim has only scratched the surface of what the crotches of the cast gallery can tell us about the people who made these sculptures. If you want to find out more about how the Ancient Greeks combined nudity with high fashion, you’ll have to join us tomorrow.

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