The fondeur d’art, or bronze caster, uses moulds to shape bronze into objects, sculptures, jewellery, or other artworks.
Bronze is an alloy made from approximately 85% copper, 12% tin and some lead, depending on the foundry.
It is the caster who melts and pours the metal into moulds, sometimes working in close conjunction with a sculptor, at other times working alone.
There are three principal methods for casting bronze: lost wax casting, using a mould made of wax that melts away in the kiln; sand casting, using a system of sand moulds and frames known as flasks; and centrifugal casting. Recently, the trend has been away from sand casting and towards lost wax casting, a technique that has changed very little since the Renaissance.
Making the mould for the bronze is where the caster’s artistic sensibilities come into play: they have to be able to imagine and then create an image in its negative form.
The moulding process goes through many stages and patience as well as vision is required to see it through.
Once the metal has been cast, the bronze workers must create the desired patina, which can involve using layers of chemicals to give a sense of depth.
As well as a strong artistic sensibility, anyone wanting to become a bronze caster needs to have an affinity for working with metal and a good eye for volume. They also need to be fit: this can be physical work.
There are approximately 300 bronze casters active in France, and many of them trained in metalwork at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, or l’Ecole Boulle, both of which are in Paris. For interested young people there are a number of lycées which specialise in metalwork across the country. One such is the Lycée Polyvalent Anguier in Ile-de-France, where it is possible to study for a one-year Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle (CAP) mouleur noyauteur: cuivre et bronze and learn the techniques of moulding bronze and copper into various forms.
Other available CAPs take two years and require a specialism in bronze, for example bronzier option ciseleur en bronze; bronzier option monteur en bronze; and bronzier option tourneur sur bronze.
For those with an interest in jewellery, the Institut de Bijouterie de Saumur offers a CAP des métiers d’art, fondeur d’art. For adults wishing to learn how to make metal jewellery, or improve existing skills, there are courses available in workshops across France. For the complete amateur, or anyone wishing to dip their toe in the water before enrolling on a training course, the Atelier des Savoir-Faire in Ravilloles in Franche-Comté offers short initiations in bronzework.
For a professional training course consult the Institut des Métiers d’Art directory, which has full listings.
The fonderie that is breaking the mould
Frederic Michel of the Fonderie des Cyclopes in Mérignac in the Gironde, trained in metalwork at school, and began his career working for other people.
“Casting is one skill,” he explains, “but bronze casting for works of art is quite another. I had to discover it for myself.”
Having to start again from scratch is common for artisanal bronze casters because training courses are invariably orientated towards commercial, rather than artistic, applications. “To acquire artistic metal casting skills you have to be passionate about them, and they require patience.”
When Mr Michel and his business partner established their foundry 20 years ago, they entered a trade which guarded its secrets jealously.
“I think, in France, master craftsmen are worried about their knowledge being stolen,” he explained, “but all this means is that time is wasted on re-inventing the wheel, and know-how risks being lost entirely.”
The Fonderie des Cyclopes has consciously adopted a different approach. They have trained cohorts of people each year since 1997 and, rather than losing clients, they believe they have gained in reputation as a result. Their students range from teenagers through to a 61-year-old looking for a new craft in retirement.
Bronze casting may have an artistic aim, but it is very physical work. The metal pieces are often heavy and require several people and various supports to carry them. The staff of the Fonderie des Cyclopes are proof, however, that gender is no barrier: about half of them are female.
For Mr Michel, all the heavy lifting is worth it the moment the artwork comes out of its mould: “I can never wait to see what’s underneath,” he enthuses.
Casting bronze sculptures is a lifelong learning experience. “We only do one-offs,” he says, “and each piece brings a different challenge. A little bit of know-how is acquired each time.”
Even so, craftsmen cannot afford to go into a project blind. Materials are pricey, and with objects on such a grand scale, mistakes are expensive. To avoid this, works of art are often produced in close collaboration with the artist, making it a “proximity-based craft”.
The Fonderie des Cyclopes has a little artist’s studio next door to the workshop, where more far-flung clients can take up residence for the duration of their project.
What advice can Mr Michel offer to those wishing to take up this craft?
“Start working with metals,” he says. “By all means, undertake training, but remember that, if you want to follow the artistic route, you need to take your time.
“Spend some years taking pleasure in creating beautiful, unique objects.”