If I were to list the criteria for my ideal project, creating a sculpture of Tadzio, the young boy from Death in Venice, for a Criterion release of Luchino Visconti’s adaptation would just about tick off all the boxes. Firstly, I love cinema, and that particular film is especially and uniquely beautiful. Secondly, although I am known primarily for my illustrations, I love working in 3D, and my current passion is for sculpture. Thirdly, I love the patina of aging bronzes, and in fact I collect images of favorite sculptures, mostly from Italy, mostly from cemeteries. And last but not least, I love Venice . . . but then again, who doesn’t?
So when Criterion reached out last year and said they’d like me to work on Tadzio, and to make him appear as though he were decaying, not only did I think that was a great idea for the Blu-ray and DVD cover, I also knew I was in my element. Tadzio represents an idealization of beauty, and the film’s main theme is the death of that ideal. So to have him pictured as a bronze sculpture that has weathered, patinated, and corroded over many years seemed like a good way to create the perfect image. I was raring to go.
I am a drawer at heart, so most projects start from there. Even when I’m working on a 3D project, I still start by drawing on a 2D sheet of paper. Once I’ve worked out a basic composition there, I quickly move to a small-scale maquette, using fine white modeling wax. It’s a soft material, so it’s easy to get a sketch down without spending too much time. Using the maquette and a number of stills from the film, I then started working on the life-size sculpture. There are a number of reasons why I decided to use plaster. First of all, I love working with a material that starts with powder and ends like soft stone. There is also something about the texture of plaster that creates a classical look when you build it up and carve it back. I was also confident that plaster could be painted to look like aging bronze. Furthermore, plaster is white, which means you can see detail far more easily, which is essential in the sculpting process.
I made a simple armature to create the basic shape, then applied the first layer using cloth mesh soaked with plaster. After that, I added more layers of wet plaster and slowly built up, all the while making measurements and comparing proportions. With a live model, of course, it’s necessary to check proportions and features over and over from countless angles. It’s an intense process, and it’s made that much harder when using only photos. So the looking, checking, and comparing was even more critical and took longer than would normally be the case. Over the course of nearly a month, gradually the face shape and features were built up, carved away, and refined with fine sandpaper until they looked and felt right, and until finally I was satisfied that the portrait was convincing and, above all, recognizable.
Patination is the process of creating the colored, weathered finish on the sculpture to work the colors on top of. Over many years bronze sculptures will verdigris, giving a beautiful green and blue effect, but depending on local conditions, other colors can develop: browns, beiges, yellows, whites, and even reds. To achieve this look, I applied paint very carefully; brushstrokes would have given the game away. The streaks or runs of color that often develop on smooth surfaces, like faces, are especially beautiful but particularly challenging to render in paint.
Once I was happy with the patination, the final stage was to photograph the finished sculpture. Lighting is the key to a good photo, and I experimented with various angles and dramatic side-lighting. In the end, subtle, fairly flat light worked best, as it fully emphasized the degradation of the coloring on the face.
Something delightful happened during the creation of this project, always a sure sign that we’re on the right track. A friend of mine suggested that I meet a couple who live in her village of Alfriston, East Sussex, within a few miles of my home. It turns out that this husband and wife are big film fans and that they love Death in Venice and Dirk Bogarde in particular. Not only that, but they actually live in the very same house where Dirk spent much of his childhood. As a result of this connection, I’ve taken the sculpture of Tadzio to visit their house and we’ve both been treated to tea and cakes.