Fewer than 200 bronze sculptures from the Hellenistic period survive worldwide, and a remarkable exhibit of about 50 of these rare works opened today at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center. Some of the bronze figures and portraits are on loan from other countries for the first time, so they can be presented with other closely related statues.
The showing, Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, is the first major exhibit to bring together important ancient bronzes from the Mediterranean region. The exhibition will be at the Getty until Nov. 1, 2015 and then move to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., when they will be on display from Dec. 13. through March 20, 2016.
“The 50 or so 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,” according to Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. He pointed out that the details found in works from the Hellenistic period (from Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C. until the establishment of the Roman Empire in 31 B.C.) are among the “most life-like and emotionally charged ever made, and still one of the high points of European art history.”
The fact that more that one-fourth of these bronze works are in one show is remarkable, for the depiction of the period and the properties of the medium. “Bronze allows you to create compositions that are much more dynamic than standard sculptures,” explained Getty curator Jens Daehner. He gave an example of one advantage over marble; “they don’t need supports for arms extended.
During the Hellenistic period, the medium of bronze drove artistic innovation. The medium allowed for dynamic works that reflect physical and emotional states, realistic details like crow’s feet and veins pulsing, and even stubble on chins. To add to their realistic depictions of people, many had inlaid stones or other metals for eyes and bones for teeth; even lips and nipples were detailed with copper or colored in other ways. An equine statue shows veins and flared nostrils that depict a horse that appears to be breathing.
The Greeks are believed to have made vast amounts of bronze works that were sold or transported throughout the Mediterranean. So why do so few exist? As Potts noted, “Bronze had the inherent problem that it was recyclable.” The Getty has an empty stone pedestal that used to hold a bronze piece at the start of the exhibit to represent all the no-longer-existent bronze statuary.
The other difference in bronze works is that they are not originals. Even the process requires that they be sculpted into clay or wax molds before being cast and those were probably used to create more than one piece. As Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin pointed out, “When seen in isolation in a museum with only one or two works, it is not obvious that they were produced multiple times.”
The Power and Pathos exhibit features some pairings that illustrate the fact that multiple versions were made of some. The exhibition features three bronze casts—a head and two full statues that are late Hellenistic or early Roman Imperial versions of an earlier statue of which 10 marble or stone replicas also exist in the world. The head of an athlete (an apoxyomenos) was found in the 1700s and is displayed alongside two large full figures that have the same head atop similar bodies. The Ephesian Apoxyomenos was found in Turkey in 1896. The Croatian Apoxymenos was found in 1999 in the Adriatic Sea off Croatia. They were allowed to come to the current exhibition so they could be shown together.
Another pairing on display shows the famous bronze figure of The Spinario, a statue of a boy extracting a thorn from his foot. It has a Hellenistic body with an early 5th Century B.C. head stuck on. It was found buried underground, but has a long provenance that goes back to the 11th Century and is on loan from the Musei Capitolini in Rome. It is next to a marble version from the British Museum from about 25-50 A.D., The Castellani Spinario differs from the bronze one with a chubbier body and more realistic facial features.
One of the other interesting works in the exhibit of rare Hellenistic bronze sculptures at Getty is The Seated Boxer (or Terme Boxer) from the Muzeo Nazionale Romano. The work is the epitome of Hellenistic realism, with the weary post-fight boxer showing muscles, scars, cuts, a broken nose and even signs of blood dripping. The statue was found in 1885 in the foundation of an ancient building, where he was clearly placed by someone for safekeeping. (The exhibit has a picture showing the ruins where he sat waiting to be discovered.)
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Visit to the exhibit July 27, 2015
The Getty Iris: A Brief Introduction to Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World
The Getty Magazine: The Age Of Bronze
Photos by Dyanne Weiss