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Rhino Orthotics: Scenes from the Conservation Studios

On Friday the 13th of April, I finished the workday with cheeks sore from smiling so much. We had just uncrated one of the star loans to the Getty Center exhibition Oudry's Painted Menagerie. As layers of foam pads were cautiously removed from the interior of the crate, a "mummified" figure was revealed. The object—a large sculpture of a porcelain rhinoceros modeled in 1731 at the Meissen manufactory in Saxony, Germany—had been wrapped entirely in surgical gauze in order to protect its fragile, original painted surface during transit from its home in the Porzellansammlung Dresden to Los Angeles.
Rhinoceros in the decorative arts conservation studios  
Mark Mitton cuts foam to size to craft orthotic inserts for Johann Gottlieb Kirchner's Rhinoceros (about 1731). Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Porzellansammlung  

The 18th-century sculptor Johann Gottlieb Kirchner (German, 1706–after 1738) had never seen a living rhinoceros and so took inspiration from the famed woodcut print by Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528) illustrating the male Indian rhinoceros that had landed in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1515. Like Dürer's prototype, the sculpted creature had two horns, one on the end of its snout and the other projecting rather curiously from its spine, just above the head. It was amusing to see these features wrapped in gauze bandages.

Our immediate challenge was to safely lift the sculpture from the crate to a low worktable. The team of art preparators, conservators, and mount makers conferred with the courier from Dresden. The figure was large for its material, measuring almost four feet long by a little more than two feet tall. (Because the photograph shown here was taken with a wide-angle lens, the sculpture appears smaller than its real size.) Someone asked, "Well, how much does it weigh?"

"Fifty-five kilos."

"How many pounds is that?"

"Well, there are 2.2 pounds in a kilo, so it weighs about 115–120 pounds—more than me!"

Mumble, grumble, groan...."I haven't weighed 55 kilos since fifth grade!"

The difficulties of handling the beast were compounded by the fact that the form had slumped slightly in the kiln during firing so that it leaned to one side, as well as by the fact that its four ankles were weak from old fractures and repairs.

Once laid to rest on its side, the next challenge called the mount maker, Mark Mitton, into action. How to secure the beast upright on the display deck so that it could withstand seismic activity, should any occur? Consulting with the courier, who stayed in Los Angeles seven days for this purpose, Mark devised an ingenious anchoring system that coiled two cables through the creature's legs and feet, threading them through custom-fitted orthotics into the deck to be clamped underneath. For two days, the gauze-wrapped, "mummified" rhino remained on its side while Mark designed and fabricated the orthotics from plex and foam core. Of course, each three-toed hoof had a unique footprint and required an individualized fit.
Rhinoceros / Kirchner  
Kirchner's Rhinoceros in all its plated, double-horned glory
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Porzellansammlung

Installed in the exhibition gallery on April 18th, the rhinoceros now stands on its own. The polychrome surface (newly restored for this exhibition) belies the porcelain material. The cables are completely hidden, cleverly concealed within limbs and feet. The inherent tilt, caused by that slight slumping in the kiln, lends a certain animation to the sculpture—as if Kirchner's fantastic creature ambles forward, mid-stride. Smiles once again cross my face.

Re: Rhino Orthotics: Scenes from the Conservation Studios

For what patron(s) would such a large porcelain rhinoceros have been made? I wonder who would have bought (and who could have afforded) such a sculpture?

Re: Rhino Orthotics: Scenes from the Conservation Studios

What a truly beautiful work of art.  Considering the sculptor was working from two-dimensional images he did a fantastic job.

Will this be on public display and, if so, where and when ?

Re: Rhino Orthotics: Scenes from the Conservation Studios

Yes! Kirchner's Rhinoceros is featured in Oudry's Painted Menagerie. Look for it in the Rhino-Mania gallery.

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