Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ephemeral Figures in Wax

By Susanne K. Arnold

Medardo Rosso

As an organic medium beeswax has the unique ability to simulate the look, touch, and feel of human flesh. From earliest times, artists and craftspeople took advantage of these qualities to create lifelike reproductions of the human head and body as objects for devotion, commemoration, scientific study, entertainment, and art. 

After the Renaissance wax was considered too fragile a medium for finished sculpture and was ignored by the history books. By the 20th century, however, artists began to seek out forgotten images and reconsider wax as a medium for human figuration. The mutability, ephemerality, and ambiguity of wax matches contemporary artists’ vision of the human condition. 

Ex-Votos and Effigies

From earliest times, wax images were used as votives for sympathetic magic and rituals. A votive or ex-voto is an offering given in fulfillment of a vow or to ask for healing or protection. As part of the ancient Egyptian ritual of embalming, wax amulets of the Sons of Horus would have been placed in the chest cavity of a mummy to protect the wearer against evil. 

An effigy is a magical image or representation of a person. Below is a wax effigy of ancient origin found pinned to a piece of slate. It was recovered during a 1925 excavation in Angelsey, Wales. The belief that piercing such an image with a sharp instrument could cause harm to the person represented by the effigy continues in some belief systems today.

Wax effigy pinned to inicised slate, 2 x 3 inches; excavated from an archeological site in Wales, now in the Gwynedd Museum, Bangor, Wales

Roman Votive Masks 

According to archaeologist John Pollini, “One of the most important aspects of Roman aristocratic culture was the right [of a man] to have a wax mask, or imago,” of himself to be displayed in his home, passed down to his family in posterity and carried in public funeral processions. Such a wax likeness was reserved for men who came from a noble family and had attained a high state office. The only wax mask to have survived, image below left, was recovered from a 1st Century B.C. excavation of a Roman tomb in Cumae, Italy (near Naples). The mask, containing glass eyes and traces of hair, was found with a headless skeleton.   

Ancient sources document that such masks were intended to be exact likenesses. The desire for true-to-life portraits coincided with the Roman concept of veritas and was integral to their belief that the virtue of the inner person could be seen in a person’s visage. Both death and life masks were made, life masks being made upon the ascension of high rank. The Barberini Togatus marble statue, 1st Century A.D., below right, is of a patrician figure holding two ancestral portraits that were originally cast in wax. 

In his Natural Histories, the Roman historian Pliny writes: "In the halls of our ancestors . . . portraits were the objects displayed to be looked at, not statues by foreign artists, nor bronzes nor marbles, but wax models of faces that were set out each on a separate side-board, to furnish likenesses to be carried in procession at funerals of the clan.”

Left: an early Roman wax mask, or imago
Right: marble statue of a Roman figure holding what would have been ancestral wax masks, approximately life size, in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome 

More from Pliny: “The first person who modeled a likeness in plaster of a human being from the living face itself, and established the method of pouring wax into this plaster mold, was [the 4th-Century B.C. Greek sculptor] Lysistratus." The Romans adopted this process in the creation of their ancestor masks, a tradition that continued for centuries.

Examples of the plaster-casting process

Above: wax death mask of Felice Fontana, left, and its plaster mold, 1805
Image from the Encyclopaedia Anatomica
Below: a death mask of Mary, Queen of Scots, dated 1567; via the internet

This photograph, from 1910, shows the making of a plaster death mask. It is from the Library of Congress collection

Medieval Votive Sculpture 

By the Middle Ages, veristic portraits of actual people had been replaced by Christian symbolism and the production of votive images that supported the rituals of the Christian church. The offering of votive objects to a divinity or saint became so common that it created an industry.

Possibly the oldest surviving Christian wax votive is the Infant of Prague, circa 1340, located in the Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious, in the Czech Republic. Today the statue is surrounded by 20 golden angels and kept in a glass case. As the reputed source of miracles, it is the subject of an annual pilgrimage that draws worshippers from around the world. 

This Infant of Prague may be the oldest Christian wax votive
Via Wikipedia

Renaissance Votive and Royal Images

The art of wax portraiture comparable to Roman funerary sculpture, and based on the features of a historical person, again rose to prominence in 14th-Century Florence. The physical and chemical attributes of wax, such as its malleability, resistance to environmental conditions, ability to hold pigment, and capacity to create remarkable mimetic likenesses, revived an interest in royal commemorative portraits and funeral effigies.

In 1478, following an attempt on his life, Lorenzo de’ Medici ordered three life-size polychrome effigies made from a wax lifecast and delivered to three Florentine churches as expressions of thanks and piety. Vasari records that Verrocchio “[made] the skeleton within of wood [and] splint reeds, which were then covered with waxed cloth …. Then he made the heads, hands and feet with wax portrayed from life, and painted with oils … so lifelike and so well wrought that they seem no mere images of wax, but actual living men.” 

This polychrome terracotta bust of Lorenzo now in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., is thought to have been made from the original wax life cast
Image from Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure

Wax figures or boti were present in all Florentine churches, but in the Church of the Santissima Annunziata they became a major feature, turning the sanctuary into an enormous museum and a center for the production of wax images. (Portraiture based on life and death masks would have a strong influence on realistic art beginning in the 15th Century.) Although all the waxes in the Annunziata were destroyed by fire in the 1600s, their popularity had already spread throughout Europe, connected to a new sense of history and dynastic importance.

The pilgrimmage church near Lichtenfels was the German counterpart of the Annunziata in Florence, with cases of life-size clothed wax figures filling the side chapels of the church chapel, from the 16th through the 19th century
Image from History of Portraiture in Wax

Here the wax effigy no longer exists but a record of it does. This engraving shows the effigy of French monarch Henry IV, arranged on an elaborate catafalque that took the place of the actual body during his funeral ceremony in 1610. Such royal ceremonies could last up to nine days, making a body substitute necessary
Image from History of Portraiture in Wax

17th to 19th Century Europe 

By the 18th century, the wax effigies at Westminster Abbey had influenced the funeral rituals of non-royalty. Hidden in a dark corner of Hare Chapel in Norfolk, England, is an extraordinary monument. Inside a glass-fronted cabinet is the life-size effigy of Sarah Hare. The daughter of Sir Thomas Hare of Stow Hall, Sarah died in 1744 at the age of 55.  Her will states, “I desire six of the poor men of the parish… to put me in to the ground. … I desire to have my face and hands made in wax with a piece of crimson satin thrown like a garment…upon my head, and put in a case of mahogany with a glass before and fix’d up..near where my corps lyes. . . I desire it be done after my death.”  Her wishes were met.

Text above the case containing the wax effigy of Sarah Hare identifies her as the youngest daughter of Sir Thomas and Dame Elizabeth Hare, and the date of her passing
Image via

Wax medallions and miniature portrait busts made for personal use were popular among the moderately wealthy from the 17th- through the mid-19th Century. The colored wax miniature of Anna of Tyrol is from 1618. The lovely wax bust of William Hulton of London was made in 1833 by Edwin Lyon. Both busts are shown below.

Wax bust of Anna of Tyrol, the first Holy Roman Empress, 1618
Public domain image via Wikimedia

Below: William Hulton by the sculptor Edwin Lyon, 1833
Via the Dictionary of Irish Artists

Anatomical Models and "Wax Venuses" 

To be an artist during the Renaissance was, for many, to be an anatomist. As European artists turned toward more lifelike portrayals of the human body, they needed a deeper understanding of how the body functioned. Artists and anatomists worked together to investigate the body through dissection. At the same time, interest in and study of normal and pathological anatomy motivated surgeons to study cadavers.The difficulty was in obtaining cadavers and the revulsion of having to dissect and examine unpreserved dead bodies. Bologna, Florence, and Paris developed major medical facilities where wax anatomical forms were made and used. 

According to historians, anatomy was considered a way to self knowledge–psychological as well as physical. Making wax models of dead bodies look alive was a reminder of the divine nature of the body as God’s creation, and of human frailty.

A room of anatomical display cases from the Florence Museo di Storia Naturale, called La Specola. Many medical displays were open to the public who saw them as a source of entertainment and awe

In Florence the wax modeler Clemente Susini worked with an anatomist in the creation of male anatomical ecorches (figures whose skin is removed to reveal the underlying muscles and organs) and four pregnant female figures called “venuses” after the Venus di Medici. The abdominal cavity of all the figures could be opened and their organs removed for study. Plaster molds were made directly from organs of a cadaver or molded in clay and cast in colored wax. Thread and wire dipped in wax were used for veins and nerves. Susini's anatomical figures are from La Specola. 

Clemente Susini, anatomical figure with removable organs, 1780-82

A.P. Pinson, seated woman, late 18th Century, in the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle,  Paris

Artist Anna Morandi Manzolini (1716-74), the only Italian female wax modeler, was trained by her husband Giovanni Manzolini of Bologna, Italy. When her husband died, she took over the family anatomy school and laboratory business. Although her patrons included the Holy Roman Emperor, the Doge of Venice, and Catherine the Great, her male colleagues considered her only a gifted dilettante and an amateur. Below is her self portrait.  

Anna Morandi Manzolini, Self Portrait, 1760, wax, Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Universita di Bologna 
Image from the Encyclopaedia Anatomica

Madame Tussaud, born Marie Grosholtz (1761-1850), was the only other female wax modeler. She was taught all aspects of wax modeling and portraiture by her uncle, Philippe Curtius, a Swiss physician and wax modeler to royalty. In 1765 they set up a wax exhibition in Paris that became very popular with the public. 

When Curtius died in 1794 Marie inherited his collection and moved to England, where she toured Curtius’s exhibition of notables, such as Anne Bolelyn. Her shows were so successful that she traveled them for 30 years before settling in London. Today, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum has venues around the world and includes portraits of celebrities.

Madame Tussaud's early career included modeling the victims of the French Revolution, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and others who were executed in 1793. In her memoir, she claims to have sat with bloody decapitated heads in her lap, taking plaster impressions of their features
Image from Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure

Left: Anne Boleyn by Philippe Curtius, who taught his niece Marie Grosholz, aka Madame Tussaud, the craft of wax modeling; Hiroshi Sugimoto photo
Right: Tussaud's tradition lives on, here with Kardashian doppelgangers via the internet

The Cusp of Modernity 

By the 19th Century, with the development of photography as a less expensive way to commemorate the living and the dead, veristic wax sculptures were no longer needed or in style. Nevertheless, around 1880 Edgar Degas made a figural sculpture of a young dance student called Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. The figure was modeled with a wax skin. The only sculpture Degas exhibited during his lifetime, Little Dancer was displayed in Paris at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881. The majority of critics wrote that it was “ugly, brutishly realistic, and resembled a medical specimen.”  Critics also objected to the fact that it was composed of wax, a material considered inappropriate for serious finished sculpture.

To construct his statue Degas built a skeleton in part out of paintbrushes, over which he modeled the figure with tinted beeswax and dressed it with a real hair wig and clothes. Degas chose wax because it was the medium “with the most potential for catching the endless variations that drove his art,” writes critic Richard Huntington. 

According to the National Gallery, “The… idea that any medium or technique necessary to convey the desired effect is fair game may be traced back to this sculpture."

Degas, The Little Dancer on her pedestal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
Below: X-ray of the statue with an illustration of the materials used to make it
Both images via the internet

Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), was an Italian artist also working in Paris at that time. His experimentations with materials and casting techniques helped transform art in the late 19th Century. Rosso challenged the prevailing concept of sculpture as art’s most durable form by creating work in wax that was described at the time as “simultaneously fleeting and lasting.”  His sculptures have been labeled impressionistic, non-durable, antisculptural, incomplete and a failure. Today, they might be labeled “provisional.” 

In Behold the Child, Rosso experimented with the concept of non-duration. He modeled in clay. Using gelatin molds, he painted molten wax into the molds with a brush, let it cool and added plaster to the inside for strength.  The last years of his life were spent casting and reworking existing models, leaving accidents and seams from the casting process visible on forms that hover on the edge of dissolution. 

Rosso’s concept of non-durable sculpture in art has found a strong resonance in the work of many contemporary artists, such as Lynda Benglis. Her Torso II is a fitting successor to Rosso’s figures.  Benglis here explores feminist themes through the manipulation of roughly textured encaustic and hemp.  

Medardo Rosso, Behold the Child, 1906, wax over plaster core,
Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Piacenza, Italy

Lynda Benglis, Torso II, 1991, hemp and encaustic
Via the exhibition catalog, Waxing Poetic


Contemporary Wax Sculpture

Contemporary sculptors whose vehicle is the human body are increasingly choosing wax as the medium for their creations to emphasize the connection between the body and the material. While some, like Benglis, choose to create images that “suggest the human form,” other artists have turned to wax as they did centuries ago for its hyper-realistic capabilities. 

The work of sculptor Paul Thek (1933-1988) was, a critic writes, “an anomaly within the 60s’ Minimalist-dominated New York art world.” In 1967 at Stable Gallery in New York City, Thek had a solo show of his now-lost work, The Tomb. This was an installation composed of a life-size effigy of the artist laid to rest inside a pink ziggurat. The sculpture was composed of a mannequin body to which a face and hands cast in wax from Thek’s own body were added and painted pale pink. The installation traveled internationally for more than 10 years. In 1981 Thek, tired of the work, refused to accept a return shipment and the work was lost. 

This photograph of Paul Thek working on his surrogate image, The Tomb Figure, 1967, was documented by his companion, the photographer Peter Hujar. Hujar's photos of Thek were recently recovered and included in the 2010 retrospective of Thek’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This image was printed by Gary Schneider in 2010

Allow me to tell you a bit about my own work. By 1981, I was using encaustic full time to produce paintings and sculpture, inspired by artifacts from archaeological excavations. Prompted by trips to Italy in 1983 and 1985, I expanded this work into life-size, encaustic-covered polystyrene sculptures, combined with paintings and painted bases as three-piece entities. 

Shown at left is work in progress from my Buried Voices Etruria series. . . . . All Arnold photos courtesy the author

The completed Buried Voices Etruria #1-4, is seen in the topmost of the two images below. In the spring of 1990, I was awarded a Virginia Commission artist residency in Southwest Virginia, where I began a related series called Buried Voices Etruria/Appalachia; this work is shown as the second of those images. 

Although replicating the antique, both sculpted and painted figures are based on actual people who reminded me of Etruscan funerary sculptures seen in Tuscany. The painted backgrounds are based on photographs I took in Italy and Virginia. The colors reflect the warm earth tones of Tuscany and the somber coal, shale, and rusty granite palette of Appalachia.
Susanne K. Arnold, Buried Voices Etruria, I-IV,  1985-1990
Below: Buried Voices Etruria/Appalachia 2-4, 1990-1998

  Each three-piece unit is 
encaustic, charcoal, pigment, and oil on paper-covered wood and carved polystyrene and wood; 84 x 48 x 16 inches.  Each installation, 10 x 15 x 3 feet. 
Taylor Dabney photos

More recently I have been making small exploratory sculptures out of beeswax and salvaged discards collected from my garden and neighborhood as a means to push the boundaries of my creativity and my encaustic medium and process. In my studio I arrange, carve or glue together these fragments. I combine encaustic with ephemeral material to form deliberately rustic, “unfinished” and impermanent sculptures.

Susanne K. Arnold, Earth Bones: Walking Man, 2007, wood and encaustic, 33 x 15 x 6 inches 
Taylor Dabney photos
Detail below 

Some of the strongest traces of cultural survival embodied by wax can be seen in Kiki Smith’s Virgin Mary, a sculpture reminiscent of the 18th-Century anatomical ecorche. Smith, who began creating work based on the vulnerability of the human body in the 1980s, has said, "I want to make something that has a very ephemeral, three dimensionality to it .… I had just seen cadavers for the first time. To see the fat and skin separated from the muscle was sort of the inspiration for making the Virgin Mary piece. Bronze is dead material … whereas the translucency of the wax is like skin so it makes them live.” 

Roberta Panzanelli writes that Smith has created with this statue the “ultimate intercessor between art, religion, anatomy, and magic.“ 

Kiki Smith, Virgin Mary, 1992; wax, cheesecloth, wood on steel base
Collection of the artist, courtesy of Pace Gallery

A number of other contemporary artists are exploring a hyperrealistic approach to the human body. These artists are deliberately seeking non-traditional mediums with which to create ironic images of the human body that imitate, mock, melt, and subvert durability in order to provoke the viewer and comment on art and the human condition. 

John Isaac’s life size statue, Bad Miracle (self portrait), 1992, is made of wax, paint, and expanding foam. Critic Robert Brown suggests the sculpture is a "self-reflective monument to modern man’s arrogance, greed and stupidity"
Via the internet

British artist Gavin Turk deals with issues of identity in this 1993 series of ambiguous wax and clay self-portraits made from a life cast
Via the internet

Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere continues the Northern Renaissance tradition of memento mori, creating hauntingly realistic figures out of wax and mixed media. In We are all Flesh, 2009, De Bruyckere has piled bodies made of painted wax and steel on a platform as if they were victims of a terrorist bombing. Her installation reflects the vulnerability and pain of The Martyrdom of Saint Bartolomew by Luca Giordano, 1537, on the wall behind the sculpture
Mike Bruce photo at Hauser & Wirth, London

The Belgian fashion house of A.F. Vandevorst created Effigy of Woman in Bed, a self-destructing wax sculpture for the 2011 Arnhem Mode Biennale, Belgium
Via the internet

At the 2011 Venice Art Biennale, Swiss artist Urs Fischer presented Untitled, an installation of two life-size wax sculptures, with embedded wicks, which faced each other. The wicks were lit so that the sculptures slowly self-destructed during the show. This is one half of the pair
Via the internet

New York artist Robert Gober addresses formal and humanistic concerns by juxtaposing function with dysfunction and the familiar with the strange in his Untitled (Bag), 1990, constructed of beeswax and mixed media
Via the internet

In his 2011 Sentimental Zone series, Vietnamese artist La Huy coats molded forms with layers of transparent wax and pigment and installs them as illuminated votives. Pairing it with Gober’s breasted work, we see the broad stylistic and technical range which artists today are seeking from their wax medium
Photo courtesy of Christina

This range can also be seen in Helen Dannelly’s Torso, made of non-durable chocolate and wax. Dannelly's sister, who was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, asked Dannelly to cast her torso before she had surgery. Dannelly made a rubber mold and cast it in resin. In 2012, with her sister’s permission, she cast it in 40 lbs. of chocolate and paraffin wax
Photo courtesy of the artist

Petah Coyne’s amorphous forms, such as Untitled (Buddha Boy), shown at Mass MoCa in 2011, evoke an “elegiac mood,” according to writer Suzaan Boettger, writing in "Petah Coyne: Not Afraid of the Dark" in Art in America, September 2010
Via the internet

Like sculpture by other 20th century artists, Buddha Boy is a work full of contradictions. Coyne uses a specially formulated wax that is very stable but appears ephemeral and fragile. Referencing the Asian color of mourning, Coyne pours and drips layers of translucent white wax over a statue of the Buddha, and strews it with fabric flowers and other objects to build texture until the figure underneath becomes unrecognizable. Like the story of the teenage "Buddha boy" found in a Nepal jungle and believed by many devotees to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, Coyne’s sculpture suggests the transitory nature of existence and art as well as the possibility of spiritual rebirth. 

Roberta Panzanelli writes that “wax embodies the… anachronistic survivals [of]… our culture. The work of contemporary artists reveals yet another survival: wax has maintained its illusionistic qualities and retained many of the themes, concerns, and forms that connect wax to the history of the representation of the body.” 

In summary, the history of wax sculpture of the human form is one of "disappearance and reappearance," notes Panzarelli. The Roman tradition of the wax ancestral mask had a role in the development of veristic portraiture in the Western world. The physical and chemical attributes of beeswax, and its capacity to create true-to-life likenesses, rekindled an interest in wax sculpture during the Renaissance for funeral effigies and portraits of the aristocracy, for devotional and commemorative votives, for scientific and medical models, and later, for hyperrealistic portraits of the infamous for public entertainment.  After the late 19th Century serious interest arose from artists willing to risk censure to explore wax’s possibilities as an artistic medium and a reliquary for ideas.

Quack medicine? It is only fitting that I end this survey of wax sculpture with a wonderful anonymous votive image of a wax face mask with stuffed duck.  According to the June 2011 Smithsonian magazine, from which this image came, inhaling the breath of a duck was once thought to cure illness

. . . . . . . . . .

I am grateful to the publications that provided extensive guidance on my journey into a forgotten history, primarily:
. Encyclopaedia Anatomica, Museo di Storia Naturale dell’Universita di Firenze, sezione di zoologia; Petra Lamers-Schultze, editor; Taschen, Cologne, 1999
. Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2008; Roberta Panzanelli, editor; which includes a translation of Julius von Schlosser's essay, History of Portraiture in Wax.                           

A copy of my full bibliography is available upon request


This article is a slightly condensed version of the illustrated talk that Arnold delivered to the 6th and 7th  International Encaustic Conferences in Provincetown in 2012 and 2013. Published here, it is intended at the author's suggestion to provide dimensional perspective to last issue's feature, Wax and the Color of Flesh. 

Read more about Susanne K. Arnold here

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