History of body (life) casting

The owner of Body Casting Sydney, Justin Robson, is considered to be one of the top life casters in Australia, if not the world. Contrary to some other web sites out there, the art of high quality body moulding / body casting / life casting is not that easy for everyone. For some people the process is relatively easy, and for others very difficult, you could be lucky, talented or hopeless. Due to the fact Justin has spent 35+ years in the film and television industry as a professional model maker and is a life time artist, Justin has brought to life the art of life casting. There is a huge difference in quality between a casual hobbyist or crafter and a fine art life caster like Justin.

Life casting is the art of immortalizing a moment in time by creating a direct impression mould of your face or other areas of the body then casting it in, gypsum, cement, bronze etc. Justin utilises various sculpting and faux finish techniques on the sculptures to resemble stone, copper, brass, bronze etc.

The finished life cast sculpture is a work of fine art and can be displayed almost anywhere. The process used creates a life cast sculpture that produces such fine details you can actually see skin texture. In order to truly appreciate the quality and beauty of my art one must see it for themselves.

Life casting is a historic art technique practiced by several ancient cultures. For example Egyptian Pharaohs and other royal citizens would have their likeness captured for eternity, by a direct impression method before being skillfully cast in precious metal.

In the 17th century the emperor Napoleon and others of that time were immortalized, usually after death. Their faces frozen in the serenity of unconsciousness have come to be called “Death Masks”.

One notable exception to the death mask is the Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln, which was made while Lincoln was still an Illinois lawyer. The mask was made on Saturday, March 31, 1860.

Lincoln said, “It’s a process that was anything but agreeable.”

That’s totally unlike today’s process, whereby clients have stated the experience is similar to receiving a hydrating facial.

In the past, the primitive materials and techniques utilized often limited the artists’ ability to reproduce their subject’s likeness. They would smear their subject’s skin with animal fat trying to prevent the inevitable sticking which crude clays and plasters are notorious for. Not only did this obscure most of the fine skin detail but, frequently resulted in the subjects loosing a great deal of hair during the removal process.


Life casting in the 19th Century

The practice of life casting was wide spread in the nineteenth century, and was considered a standard part of the sculptor’s technique.

A documentary piece or an testimony of affection, the life cast, in its extremely accurate representation of reality, soon gave birth to a violent polemic in the history of European sculpture, the unjust scandal orchestrated around Rodin’s L’Age d’Airin being the best known.

The technique of life casting shared the same stakes as realism in sculpture and the representation and appropriation of the human body or its fragments, appropriations that scientific, or considered as such, disciples, used systematically throughout the 19th century with a didactic purpose.

Excerpt from Musee d’Orsay’s website

“A Moulage Sur Nature” (A casting from life) , Edouard Dantan’s 1887 painting depicting the process of life casting in an artist’s studio of the 1880’s.


Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume (1816-1892) Cast of Louis Seinhel's face with his hands on his eyes Circa 1834-1838 Plaster Paris, Musée des Monuments Français © Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume (1816-1892)
Cast of Louis Seinhel’s face with his hands on his eyes
Circa 1834-1838
Paris, Musée des Monuments Français
© Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt


Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume (1816-1892) Cast of a woman's body Plaster Paris, Musée des Monuments Français © Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume (1816-1892)
Cast of a woman’s body
Paris, Musée des Monuments Français
© Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

The practice of life casting was widely spread in the 19th century, during which it was closely linked to both art and science. Mirroring artistic practices, the exhibition features phrenologist, ethnographic, but also medical, zoological and botanical casts, constituting a varied panorama of a technique widely used in the private as well as the public sphere.

Related to the cult for souvenirs, life casting became popular in bourgeois circles through masks cast on living or dead models or of the hands of artists, political, literary or society figures such as the Comtesse de Castiglione. More modest testimonies of affection sometimes accumulated in interiors to form secular reliquaries.

Life casting, whether interpreted as a normal sculptural process, documentary piece or affectionate souvenir, soon gave rise, with its near perfect reproduction of reality, to acute polemics. For Baudelaire, “the aim of sculpture is not to rival with casts”, and as for Rodin, “To copy nature faithfully is not the purpose of art. A life cast is the most accurate copy one can get, but it is lifeless, it lacks movement and eloquence, it does not say everything.”


The master of French realism, Jules Dalou, perfectly summed up in his private notes the feeling commonly shared about life casting: “Neither life casting or photography are or will ever be art. Art only exists as an interpretation of nature, whatever it may be […] It is the spirit of nature one must find, in one’s own way and according to the needs of the subject matter, and also of one’s time. But to endeavour to render it strictly to the letter is a gross mistake.”

Today some 19th-century life casts are astonishing for the freshness and vivacity of the model’s, often female, pose, for the liberty and invention of the “framing” chosen by the caster. Every 19th-century workshop sported, hanging from the walls or aligned on a shelf, life casts. A few artists (Geoffroy-Dechaume, Vela) made them themselves or entrusted their execution to a famous caster.

As a stage in the creative process of the sculptor, life casting was practised on surprising models, such as the night gown cast in 1897 by Rodin as part of his research for the creation of Balzac’s statue. The collection of the Adolphe-Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume, recently acquired by the Musée des Monuments Français, exceptional in the quality and quantity of life casts it includes (the fragments of bodies originating in the sculptor Vincenzo Vela’s workshop), testifies to the vivacity and virtuosity of a technique that was widely spread but generally deemed suspect. Many artists, including Gustave Moreau, bought casts of arms, legs, feet, etc. in specialised shops. Hanging on the workshop walls, the plaster casts were used as permanent models and contributed to the atmosphere of the place, as illustrated by the famousWorkshop Wall by the painter Adolph Menzel, on exceptional loan from the Hamburger Kunsthalle.


Auguste Clésinger (1814-1883) Woman Bitten by a Snake, 1847 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Auguste Clésinger (1814-1883) Woman Bitten by a Snake, 1847
Paris, Musée d’Orsay

The accusation, righteous or not, of life casting as the ultimate insult to artistic creation punctuated the history of the latter half of 19th-century sculpture. This polemic recurrently arose with any work reproducing reality more faithfully than what the academic tradition deemed necessary; the sculptor was then suspected of including directly the life cast fragment in the composition of his piece. If certain artists were denounced with reason, such as Clésinger with his Woman bitten by a snake (1847) or Falguière with Cléo de Mérode (1896), others were wrongly accused, e.g. Rodin for L’Âge d’Airain (1877). These polemics also highlighted the violent reactions of some critics towards the generalisation of illusionism in sculpture, a trend that culminated in the 1880’s.

If what was at stake in the technique of life casting was realism in sculpture, this technique also encroached upon the field of representation and appropriation of the human body or its fragments, appropriation that some scientific disciplines (or at least some then considered as such) did not fail to systematise during the 19th century in a didactic purpose.

From the 1840’s onwards one can observe a proliferation of the use of life casting in many scientific disciplines. Phrenologists, anthropologists, doctors, botanists, zoologists, etc. made plenty of prints and casts for teaching and research, as testified by the collection of dermatological pathologies of the Musée de l’Hôpital Saint Louis, the collection of vegetables, cast and painted with natural colours, of the Vilmorin estate, or the spectacular polychrome prints of mushrooms gathered in the Musée d’Histoire naturelle in Nice by the naturalist Jean-Baptiste Barla between 1855 and 1895. The technique of casting was widely used, thus reinforcing the only status art critics and supercilious sculptors accorded it: that of a working document.

More on the History of Lifecasting at http://www.lifecasting.net/hstry.html




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