Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ancient Greek Bronzes at the Getty in L.A.

Portrait of a North African Man, 300–150 B.C., found in Cyrene, Libya. Bronze and bone, 10 5/8 in. high. Image courtesy of  © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Hellenistic period (323 b.c.–31 b.c.) in Greek and Mediterranean history marks a momentous development in the medium of sculpture. Though artists and artisans of the time were inspired by classical subject matter, they were innovative and forward thinking in their own right. They began using bronze, rather than marble, to create statues and honorific portraits more realistic than ever before, and an increasing number of affluent collectors were eager to bring these prized creations into their homes.

“Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World,” an unprecedented new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, features more than 50 of these ancient sculptures, shedding light on their scale, fine detail, and astonishingly lifelike features. Highlights include a depiction of a perfectly chiseled Herakles from the first century a.d. and a remarkably naturalistic sculpture of a boy removing a thorn from his foot that is more than 2,000 years old.

 Sleeping Eros, 300–100 B.C., Greek. Bronze, 16 1/2 in. high x 33 9/16 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1943 (43.11.4). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Scala, Firenze

In the Hellenistic period, artists were interested in more than just standard ideal figures. We see the first realistic images of children as children, not as miniature adults, and of older figures with balding heads and pot bellies.

The sculptures in the exhibition appear to be highly individual portraits—look at their furrowed brows, crows’ feet, bulging chins, broken noses, and fleshy cheeks. But because these features appear in more than one portrait, they appear to have been part of the artistic lingo of the time. How lifelike these portraits truly are is hard to say.

Bronze sculpture is made with the lost-wax casting process, a technique that allows for finer detailing than stone carving. Since bronze is strong, metal sculptures could also have more dynamic and emotional forms than marble sculptures.

In antiquity, bronze sculptures were made in multiples and extremely common. The lost-wax casting process allowed for many copies. Thousands of bare pedestals at archaeological sites show us that at one point bronzes were everywhere. Lysippos, sculptor to Alexander the Great, was reported to have made 1,500 bronze statues in his lifetime. None survive today.

Ancient bronze sculptures were melted down for their material, which was recycled into coins and other objects. Only 100 to 200 bronze sculptures from the Hellenistic period survive. The count varies, depending on how you want to count fragments like stray hands and feet.

In a beautiful paradox, the bronzes we have today survived mostly because of disaster, such as volcanic eruptions and landslides. Greed also saved a few, since statues being transported as booty or commercial merchandise were sometimes submerged during shipwrecks. Just in the last 15 years, a handful of significant bronzes have been discovered at the bottom of the sea.

Today ancient bronze sculptures are various shades of green and gray, due to oxidation. But when first made they would have been a shiny, reflective brown, like tan skin in the Mediterranean sun. Bronze allows for an play between light and shadow that must have been a delight to see when the sculptures were originally displayed in public.

Because of their rarity, Hellenistic bronze sculptures are most often displayed in museums as isolated masterpieces. This exhibition, the largest of its kind ever staged, is the first to present these works in their larger contexts. 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 sculptures. Bronze 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 since their ancient creation.

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is on view July 28 to November 1, 2015, at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center. The exhibition was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington with the participation of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

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