Giacobbe Giusti, Power and Pathos
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.
Blockbuster ‘Power and Pathos’ Exhibit to Open in Florence
An extensive new show brings together 50 ancient bronze masterpieces
Is it possible that the apotheosis of Western sculpture was achieved over 2,000 years ago and it’s been all downhill since then? A new blockbuster exhibit, ‘Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World,’ strongly buttresses this view.
Greek bronzes hold a rarified place in the art world, both in terms of quality and scarcity. Most Greek sculpture that has survived is carved from marble. In ancient times, however, bronze was more highly prized and served as the material of choice for the wealthiest patrons and most skilled artists. Unfortunately, bronze was also easily melted down for recycling and most pieces have been lost to time and history. Carol C. Mattusch, a bronze expert at George Mason University, estimates that “There are probably fewer than 200 ancient large-scale bronzes, Greek and Roman, unless you want to count an arm here and a leg there.”
So it’s a remarkable curatorial achievement that ‘Power and Pathos’ brings together 50 or so of the most spectacular surviving masterpieces in one exhibit. The show opens March 14 at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, before moving to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in July and then the National Gallery of Art in Washington in December. Classical scholars and sculpture lovers are abuzz over the breadth of the show, declaring it one of those rare museum shows that is worth getting on a plane to see. Adding to the allure of the show, many of the pieces have an exciting back-story: a number have been discovered by fisherman or divers at the bottom of the sea. One of the newer stars of the show is the first century B.C. Croatian Apoxyomenos, or Statue of an Athlete, discovered at a depth of about 150 feet in 1997 in the Northern Adriatic off the coast of Croatia. It is largely intact, making it one of the most striking underwater discoveries of the last 20 years. Indeed, from a preservationist’s point of view, the best thing that could happen to a Greek bronze is that it was lost at sea in a shipwreck or buried in a landslide or earthquake.
The works in the show come from “thirty-four museums in thirteen countries on four continents who have entrusted us with many of their most celebrated treasures,” according to the exhibition catalog.
The show is a veritable Murderers’ Row of Greek bronzes, pieces that have been famous for centuries, including the Terme Boxer, from Rome, Sleeping Eros, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boy with Thorn, also from Rome. The piece also contains some memorable newer discoveries that have never traveled before. The Getty, which was the driving force behind the exhibition, custom-built specially reinforced shipping crates for the different works and provided them to the different museums for transport.
Large-scale ancient bronzes rarely come to market and the works in the show are literally priceless. In 2007, an anonymous bidder paid about $28 million for a bronze Artemis and the Stag. Using that as a rough, crude measure, there is about $1.5 billion worth of ancient art in the show. Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, declines to put a dollar amount on the art in the show, but notes that the Artemis piece was a Roman bronze, and thus had a “frankly lower” value than the older Greek bronzes in the show.
Not every piece will travel to every location on the tour. For instance, the Getty Bronze, a statue of a naked youth crowning himself with a wreath (300-100 B.C.), is claimed by Italy. Mr. Potts says the piece will travel to D.C., but not to Italy. “It’s an object that’s still going through the court system in Italy,” he says. Unlike other pieces that the Getty returned to Greece and Italy for lacking proper title, the Getty says that the bronze was found in international waters and Italy has no legal claim to the piece. A spokesman for Italy’s Culture Ministry said that Italy still claims the statue and that it is currently awaiting a ruling by Italy’s highest appeal’s court. Despite the one contested piece, the Getty and a number of Italian museums are working closely on the exhibit.
The exhibit focuses on works made in the Hellenistic age versus the earlier Classical period, which portrayed subjects in an idealized fashion—godlike rulers and athletes with unattainable abs and cheek bones, much like a fashion magazine cover. The art in the show dates roughly from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) to the ascent of Rome over Greece in the first century A.D., when artists began to make their work more life-like and individualistic. The Getty’s Mr. Potts argues that the sculptures of that period are the “most life-like and emotionally charged ever made, and still one of the highpoints of European art history.”
The Boxer is filled with pathos. The bruised, aging fighter has a broken nose, battered ears and blood and sweat dripping from his body. The hyperrealism and emotional content of these pieces has an electrifying impact on contemporary audiences. When the Boxer was on loan to the Met in 2013, guards had to constantly stop people from impulsively touching the statue.
Other pieces show wild beards, crow’s feet and other wrinkles, veins and tendons. “The head of the man from Delos is one of the great examples of individual portraiture from any era,” says Jens M. Daehner, one of the curators of the show. “It really embodies our modern idea of what a portrait is—something that originated in Hellenistic time.”