March 2019

This workshop, conducted with six first-year students from the History of Art Department at Penn, as well as six graduate students from Temple and Bryn Mawr, explored stone sculptural and architectural objects and their physical and material qualities, drawing on the PMA’s collections of sculptures and architectural fragments made of a range of different types of stone. Its mentor team included: Kate Cuffari, Associate Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture; Jack Hinton, Associate Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture; and Ann Kuttner, Associate Professor of History of Art at Penn. Nicole Cook, PMA Coordinator for Academic Partnerships added vitally to the team’s brainstorming discussions and accompanied the group throughout the day.

The intensive work in student teams focused on selected pieces in the medieval galleries, from limestone font and column capitals in the cloister to alabaster altarpieces; they worked in pairs before leading the group to present each team’s take in group discussion. Postures ranged from crouching to reconstruct original views upwards, to brave reach on ladders, to a Roman sarcophagus relief embedded decoratively high on the gallery wall. Careful touch was strongly encouraged! Then, eying stonework here and there along the way, the group jumped some centuries to the French Renaissance, and the classicizing white marbles and polychrome stones of the Château of Pagny’s enormous choir screen, with its fantastic architectural lattice, reliefs and statuary. The remains of plain stone architectural statuary and ornament around that room’s walls gave good contrasts to work in marble. (Polychromy came up throughout the day, for painted sculpture, gilded alabaster, and stone combinations.) These sessions in the galleries incorporated close examination of works on display to glean insight into intersections of material selection, manufacture, design, and user and viewer experience with the physical properties of the medium. The discussions addressed how the perceived character of a material and its working can be intrinsic to the meanings of objects, and thought about the practice of other media applied to or joined to stone objects. Stone, seemingly inert, has a life in time: participants explored the physical alteration of structures and surfaces over time, through weathering or natural exposure and through active interventions including reuse, alteration, interpretive installation, conservation, and restoration. How the three-dimensional is lit (or not lit) profoundly affects its reception, as does the play of light on matte or lustrous surface; original style and facture and installation of both interior and exterior stonework often responded to expected light conditions. The group used the varied PMA lighting choices across galleries to think hard about that, as they wielded the bright flashlights to better scrutinize surfaces. Light matters too to documentation and reception of three-dimensional stone objects by means of photographic images; with the conservation archive photographs to hand for all the selected workshop items in the medieval section, the students could think immediately and with point of the resultant impact of such images on interpretation of objects. 

The day, punctuated by a stimulating, lunch-assisted seminar-style discussion led by conservator Kate Cuffari, ended in the Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation Lab. Conservator Sally Malenka had worked up some soft-stone sculpture with which to launch discussion of tools and facture; the students themselves, in pairs, tried out carving tools on soft stones, providing a haptic experience and frame of reference for the historic stone surfaces examined throughout the day. Sculptures and artifacts had been gathered for the group of varied stone types and surface character from a range of chronological and cultural origins, including not just statuary but also objects in appealing stones, like a Chinese jade bottle and a porphyry European snuffbox. Those close examinations provided direct comparisons and unusual pairings, to develop participants’ acuity for works of art in stone and further appreciation for the subtle discernment that direct observation provides. A high-point provoking open expressions of delight was our chronological ascent to the twentieth century with Brancusi’s Mademoiselle Pogany I on her limestone base, wheeled in for this discussion, enabling students to lean in almost touching her varied delicately or roughly textured surfaces; her pseudo-fragmentation complemented all the actual fragments of our stones day.