Artificial busts are booming. More people are buying them

Meet Glenda. She has streaks of gold in her white hair, melatonin-clouded eyes, and a tragically lacking torso.

Glenda, a nickname coined in Anthropologie’s Philadelphia office, is a bust planter officially known as the Grecian Bust Pot, with a gaping cleft where her cement brain would have been. When the lifestyle chain presented the piece in 2018, it sold out quickly. It’s now available in two sizes (small for $24 and large for $44) and is a consistent best-seller in Anthropologie’s “Giftware” category, said Mary Beth Sheridan, the company’s primary distributor.

I first saw Glenda in a TikTok video from Brigette Muller’s apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where the bust was perched on a mantel. Ms Muller, 34, a freelance content creator, describes her interior style as “feminine and beautiful”, “classy and sublime”. She bought Glenda in 2019 to make her space “feel more upscale and mature,” she said.

“I suddenly became very interested in statues and columns,” added Ms. Muller. “That kind of classic Greek feeling.”

This interest isn’t just her: On Etsy, searches for busts or statues made of concrete, cement, ceramic, clay or marble increased by nine percent in 2021 compared to 2020, said Dayna Isom Johnson, trends expert at the company.

The online marketplace currently has around 158,000 bust listings, including a 3D printed bust of the Greek poet Sappho (starting at $13), a gilded bust of Donald Trump ($125), wax candle busts that are too beautiful to burn, and a Bust of Jeff Bezos ($59) that doubles as a headphone stand (interestingly, it’s not available on Amazon).

On Chairish, an online secondhand furniture and decor marketplace, the number of busts for sale increased 150 percent from December 2020 to December 2021, said Noel Fahden, vice president of merchandising. Below: A $3,400 cast stone bust of Hermes that includes a pedestal.

Historically, the term “bust” has referred to both a sculpted torso (hence “bust” as in cleavage) and sculpted heads. The latter, also called portrait busts, were made as lifelike memorials for the dearly departed, typically carved in marble and owned by the nobility.

When the art form became popular again in Europe during the Renaissance, kings had busts made “as a kind of propaganda,” said Emerson Bowyer, Searle curator of painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Having a Napoleon bust in your home somehow connects you to Napoleon,” explained Mr. Bowyer, who owns a Napoleon bust. “And so I think there’s this sense of creating imaginary genealogies.”

During the Renaissance and into the 19th century, busts appeared mainly in city centers and in the homes of those who could afford hand-carved marble. Today, mass manufacturing, 3D printing, cheaper materials, and a robust online network of second-hand dealers have democratized the art form. Busts are no longer just sacred relics, but knick-knacks available to anyone with a bare bookshelf.

On Amazon, a popular portrait bust is a $22 resin replica of Michaelangelo’s David. A far cry from marble, says Mr. Bowyer, it is “still in some ways imbued with the aura of the original object.”

David Land, 48, a photographer and director, has at least eight busts at his home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his husband Rumaan Alam, 44, a writer and author, and their two sons. Their collection ranges from the playful (a spray-painted “David-ish” bust, as Mr. Land put it, in plaster by artist Kelly O’Neal, who the couple bought last year) to the historical (a papier-mâché bust the Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines), to the camp (David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, also made of papier-mâché).

Her most prized bust, “St. Francis of Adelaide,” a small marble piece by Kehinde Wiley, depicts a black man wearing a tank top and holding the globus cruciger, a symbol of royalty, in a sacred pose. It’s on Mr Alam’s desk. “Our sons are African American,” said Mr. Land. “It’s important for us to have art in the house that reflects who we are as a whole family.”

Mr. Wiley’s “St. Francis of Adelaide” is one of many busts that reflect collectors’ desire to see themselves in the art form. After Natalie Holbenn, 35, bought an ivory Imani bust ($38) from Etsy shop Purely Human Nature last year, she immediately bought a second piece in “Coffee,” the shade closest to her wife’s skin tone.

Ms. Holbenn, who works on the Portland Japanese Garden’s member services team, placed the two busts around a photograph of the couple on a bookshelf at her home in Portland, Ore. “I bought them because they’re not like ordinary sculptures,” she said. “Most are slim and ‘perfect’. These busts were perfect for me and much more realistic.”

Samira Sinare, the creator of Purely Human Nature, says she gets requests for custom busts depicting the bodies of breast cancer survivors and transgender people, which she honors whenever possible. (Ms. Sinare, who lives in New York, uses molds to make her concrete busts.)

Perhaps no contemporary maker has enjoyed busts more than potter Jonathan Adler, who has been sculpting them in his New York studio for decades. “From where not I have a bust?” he said on a phone call. “I stare at you while we speak!”

More specifically, it was his Atlas Split Bust Vase ($450), a multi-faceted piece made of white porcelain with gold accents into which he’d stuffed some ostrich feathers. For his recent Grand Tour collection, Mr. Adler crafted a series of classical-style portrait busts inspired by the meandering voyages of Europe made by the wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries, often accompanied by one or two Souvenir busts returned.

Each of the three styles—God ($895), Goddess ($895), and Soldier ($495)—is sculpted with two pieces of acrylic wrapped around an etch to fit narrow mantels.

“I think there’s a real trend in the decorating world to take things that are traditionally very serious and deface them slightly,” said Mr. Adler. In the case of Anthropologies Glenda or its bust vases, that means carving a small hole in the head; For his Grand Tour busts, it meant sculpting them to “hit all the right notes of scale, savoir-faire, and a wink.”

Mr. Adler said humans have a “biological imperative” to look at the human face and thinks sculpture allows for a truer approximation of that experience than any other art form.

Patrick Monahan, an art consultant in New York who recently bought some busts for clients, suggested another reason for the renewed interest in them.

“After all this time in the house, we just need someone to talk to,” he said.

All Consuming is a column about things we see – and want to buy immediately.

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