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Whether People or Dolls…Different people react differently to the wax figures. Some admire them, others are a little bit frightened. But the fact is that everybody likes them.
For a month's period the Museum of Wax Figures from St. Petersburg was displaying its wax exhibits at the Chisinau Archaeology Museum. Tatiana Serzhanina, General Manager of the Chisinau exhibition, was kind enough to meet with the Welcome magazine correspondent. She provided us with some information about the history of wax figure creation and revealed a number of interesting facts from the life of these unique sculptures.
Wax is a solid, slightly shiny substance that can be cut and shaped with facility at ordinary temperatures. It melts to a limpid fluid at a low heat. It mixes with any coloring matter and takes surface tints well. Its texture and consistency may be modified by a number of earthy matters as well as by adding oils or fats. Its dull gloss inspires the ambience of enigma. Eventually the invitingly malleable material has always attracted people by its art qualities. The history of the art of wax modeling is as old as that of mankind.
Generally, in ancient societies where the official cult of the dead existed, wax masks roughly repeating the features, were applied on the faces of the deceased in order to establish contacts with the world to come. These were supposedly buried with them to ensure that the soul of the dead person was protected on its perilous journey through the hostile world.
Wax figures of deities were used in the funeral rites of the ancient Egyptians and deposited in their graves; many of them are now in museums. Under the Middle Kingdom (2052-1786 BC) it came to be believed that all men, not just the king, could expect life in another world. Accordingly, stylized masks, which normally generalized the features, were aimed to conduct the deceased to his eternal resting-place, and to point to his soul the way back into the body. The masks were usually made of plastered-cast linen, and then painted. The death masks from the heads of notables were however cast of silver or gold.
Among ancient Greeks wax figures were used largely as dolls for children. Statuettes of deities were also modeled for votive offerings and religious ceremonies.
Wax figures and models held still more important a place among the Romans. The masks of ancestors, modeled in wax, peculiarly colored, were preserved by patrician families in the main halls of their houses, and were displayed on ceremonial occasions and carried in funeral processions.
Other ancient people who evidently practised wax modeling were the Incas, whose masks of wood and of clay have been found in the graves of common people whereas those of gold – in the tombs of the chief rulers or members of the royal family. Golden masks covered the faces of the deceased kings of Siam (Thailand) and Cambodia.
The practice of wax modeling can be traced through the Middle Ages, when the Roman method of producing and preserving wax masks was essentially adopted, yet slightly changed. When Christianity was officially established in Europe, wax models of nobles and celebrities were dedicated to churches. The facial masks of the statues of saints were sometimes made of wax, and stored in places of worship. Different parts of the body were also modeled in wax so that they could be offered to various saints to heal the sufferings. Charles VI the Well Beloved, king of France, was known to send his life-size wax parts of the body to different temples when he was ill. This tradition seemingly brought about the appearance of anatomical models in wax.
Initially, wax figures were produced only in Italy, later this practice enjoyed popularity in France, England, and Germany; wax masks preserved the memories of numerous great personages.
During the fourteenth-seventeenth centuries, in France, wax figures of deceased nobles (primarily rulers) were usually cast and then painted in a special way. The figures dressed in ceremonial robes were put in the bed of the deceased, and received the same homage as if they were human beings for forty days. Later those wax models were preserved in the temples where the late had been buried. The wax figures of the kings of France had been stored at the St. Denis abbey but were destroyed during the French revolution of 1789.
With the Renaissance in Europe, modeling in wax took a position of high importance, and it was practised by some of the greatest of the early masters. The bronze medals by famous medallists owe their value to the artistic qualities of the wax models from which they were cast. Such a great sculptor as Michelangelo in making preliminary sketches for his statues also used wax models. Wax medallion portraits were popular during the sixteenth century, and many practitioners of this form of art earned considerable celebrity. During the seventeenth century the polychromatic wax relief came into favor, especially in Spain and Italy.
Malice and superstition were also expressed in the formation of wax images of hated persons, into the bodies of which long pins were thrust in the hope that a deadly injury would be induced in the person represented. Belief in this form of black magic never died out completely.
The "liveliness" of the substance did apparently not allow to forget the belief that portraits whether wax or painted, were connected with the real beings in a mysterious way. The wax and painted images of those sentenced to death happened to be executed instead of the human beings.
In the seventeenth century, a distinctly different method of wax modeling was adopted in Western Europe. Wax images of the living were practised on the basis of the skills of all the previous periods. The art of wax sculpturing became of a secular type, unlike the precedent ages.
Traveling exhibitions of waxworks with mechanical motions were shown in Europe in the eighteenth century. The Swiss Philippe Curtius displayed an exhibition of human-sized wax figures in Paris, at Palais Royal, in 1770. Within a matter of weeks it turned extremely popular, not only among the Parisians but also with foreigners. Before long, another exhibition, representing "all the kings of Europe and the Emperor of China," was opened on a Parisian avenue. Later Curtius began to send traveling exhibitions from Paris in other cities and countries.
The famous Marie Tussaud inherited her museum of wax figures from Philippe Curtius (he was her uncle); this is the most famous permanent exhibition of waxworks in the world.
Around the turn of the sixteenth century the art of wax modeling was transplanted in Russia. In 1697, the Tsar of Russia Peter the Great went with the so-called Grand Embassy to Western Europe. He was impressed by the wax figures, especially by the splendid model of Friedrich I, at the Cabinet of Curiosities (Kunstkammer) in Berlin. On his return to Russia, the young tsar brought a wax model of his own head as well as seven wax busts of some of the "grand ambassadors." During his next trip to Europe, Peter I ordered the wax busts of Abraham Hannibal and the dwarf Luke. Quite evidently, a few foreign craftsmen were invited in Russia in order to execute in wax many busts and figures. Unfortunately, the only contemporary master of this art whose name is recorded was Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli. In 1716, he and his sixteen-year-old son Francesco (architect) arrived in Russia. He created the portrait of Peter the Great in armor that still exists, and was known to be the author of the wax busts of tsarina Praskovia Fedorovna (mother of Peter I), Natalia Petrovna (his sister), and Prince Aleksandr Menshikov. He also made the wax mask of the Tsar's hayduck Bourgeois famous for his giant height.
The most important work by Rastrelli is the wax figure of Peter the Great that was created immediately after the tsar's death, by his measurements and the posthumous mask. It is a miracle that the wax figure has remained intact at State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg since the wax is a very fragile material.
Experts in different fields help in producing wax figures: art critics, historians, sculptors, and modelers, wig makers, make-up artists, designers, etc.
The work on the images of historic personages begins with deep research: archives, descriptions by contemporaries, genre painting, engravings, and photographs, death wax masks from heads and hands are studied. The method helps to achieve a significant resemblance between the wax figures and the real persons. This is not however all the work. Each personage is provided with their own characteristics: gestures, expression of the face, turn of the head, so that the type acquires an original look.
The Russian craftsmen's experiments and long search resulted in a unique wax practice that allows demonstrating the figures in different conditions: the temperature of the air can vary from minus 40 degrees to plus 40 degrees Centigrade. This wax does not have any gloss, perfectly imitates the human skin.
In preparing wax models craftsmen use high-quality false teeth and eyes, and natural hair. The wig-maker implants hairs in the wax surface one by one – not by locks – with a special hot needle, and creates wigs consisting of up to 40,000 hairs. The same method is applied to prepare eyelashes, brows and beards. Only later, the hairdresser makes a hair-trim and style corresponding to the historic age in question. The cast wax parts are thoroughly, by hand, perfectioned by the make-up artist who reconstructs skin folds, wrinkles, nails, veins, covers the wax with a specially made make-up that would be periodically restored if necessary.
The compositions differ with well-balanced, dynamic grouping of figures. The fantastic play of light and shade of halogen lamps and dark draperies intensify the effect of "enlivenness" of the historic age and creates an incomparable atmosphere of mystery.
Prepared by Vlada Popushoi