Copper in the Arts

August 2015

Rare Hellenistic Bronze Sculpture On View at Getty

Man from DelosHead of a Man from Delos, about 100 B.C. Bronze, white paste, and dark stone, 32.5 x 22 x 22 cm. Courtesy of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs. The National Archaeological Museum, Athens. 

Photo by Marie Mauzy/Art Resource, NY

On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum through November 1, 2015, Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is the first major international exhibition to bring together more than 50 ancient bronzes from the Mediterranean region and beyond ranging from the 4th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D.

“The representation of the human figure is central to the art of almost all ancient cultures, but nowhere did it have greater importance, or more influence on later art history, than in Greece,” said Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “It was in the Hellenistic period that sculptors pushed to the limit the dramatic effects of billowing drapery, tousled hair, and the astonishingly detailed renderings of veins, wrinkles, tendons, and musculature, making the sculpture of their time the most life-like and emotionally charged ever made, and still one of the highpoints of European art history. At its best, Hellenistic sculpture leaves nothing to be desired or improved upon. The more than 50 works in the exhibition represent the finest of these spectacular and extremely rare works that survive, and makes this one of the most important exhibitions of ancient classical sculpture ever mounted. This is a must-see event for anyone with an interest in classical art or sculpture.”

Large-scale bronze sculptures are among the rarest survivors of antiquity; their valuable metal was typically melted and reused. Rows of empty pedestals still seen at many ancient sites are a stark testimony to the bygone ubiquity of bronze statuary in the Hellenistic era. Ironically, many bronzes known today still exist because they were once lost at sea, only to be recovered centuries later.

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World gives viewers a rare chance to glimpse rare works of art that are usually exhibited in isolation. When viewed in proximity to one another, the variety of styles and techniques employed by ancient sculptors is emphasized to greater effect, as are the varying functions and histories of the bronze sculptures. Bronze, cast in molds, was a material well-suited to reproduction, and the exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity to see objects of the same type, and even from the same workshop together for the first time. For example, two herms of Dionysos – the Mahdia Herm from the Bardo National Museum, Tunisia and the Getty Herm were made in the same workshop and have not been shown together since antiquity.

“The Mahdia Herm was found off the Tunisian coast in 1907 together with the cargo of an ancient ship carrying many artworks from Greece,” said Jens Daehner, one of the curators of the exhibition. “It is the only surviving case of an ancient bronze signed by an artist (Boëthos of Kalchedon). The idea that the Getty Herm comes from the same workshop is based on the close match of the bronze—an alloy of copper, tin, lead, and other trace elements that’s like the DNA of bronze sculptures. The information that these two works yield when studied together is extraordinary. It is a perfect example of how revealing and instructive it is to contemplate Hellenistic bronzes in concert with one another.”

The exhibition is organized into six sections: Images of Rulers, Bodies Ideal and Extreme, Images of the Gods, The Art of Replication, Likeness and Expression, and Retrospective Styles.

“Our aim in bringing together this extraordinary group of the most significant ancient bronzes that have survived is to present these works, normally viewed as isolated masterpieces, in their larger contexts,” said Kenneth Lapatin, the show’s co-curator. “These stunning sculptures come together to tell a rich story, not only of artistic accomplishment, but also of the political and cultural concerns of the people who commissioned, created, and viewed them more than two thousand years ago.” Among the many famous works is the so-called Head of a Man from Delos from the National Museum of Athens, a compellingly expressive portrait with well-preserved inlaid eyes. The dramatic image of an unknown sitter is believed to date from the end of the second or beginning of the first century BC.

Although rarely surviving today, multiple versions of the same work were the norm in antiquity. A good example is the figure of an athlete shown holding a strigil, a curved blade used to scrape oil and dirt off the skin, known in Greek as the apoxyomenos or “scraper”. This exhibition brings together three bronze casts—two full statues and a head—that are late Hellenistic or early Roman Imperial versions of a statue created in the 300s BC by a leading sculptor of the time. This was evidently one of the most famous works of its time and copies were made well into the Roman Imperial period.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, also titled Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, edited by Daehner and Lapatin. From October 13-17, 2015 archaeologists, art historians, conservators, curators, scientists, and students will convene at both the Getty Villa and the Getty Center for the 19th International Congress on Ancient Bronzes, which will use the exhibition and related research as a resource and address bronzes of the Hellenistic age and other periods through lectures and study sessions. The exhibition was on view at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy from March 14 – June 21, 2015. After the Getty, Power and Pathos will travel to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. December 13, 2015 through March 20, 2016.

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The Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90049

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