Saturday, October 18, 2008

A God From Dresden

I found the following article very interesting. Having photographed hundreds of statues in some of the world's finest museums, including the Getty Villa, I often marvel at the subtle clues scholars use to identify art that is often unearthed in fragments with no inscriptions to provide a hint of identify. Often it is the hairstyle, fashion or degree of sensuousness and comparisons to existing identified statues from the time period (if period can be ascertained) that often determine the description presented to the public.

In this case, a headless statue from a Dresden museum collection, is being studied by modern conservators at the Getty to see if some agreement can be reached as to how to present this work of art. I found it amusing that conservators across the centuries have identified it as Alexander the Great (adding suitable accessories), Antinous and, ultimately, Bacchus at different points in time. At a Getty colloquium in August, attendees generally expressed their leanings toward Bacchus, but the Getty has decided to make the conservation of the statue (to be exhibited headless), rather than a predetermined identity, the focus for its upcoming premiere at the Getty in December.

"On a recent sunny Saturday, while most Southern Californians were deployed somewhere enjoying a weekend hiatus, 20 art historians, conservators and museum officials shifted in their chairs around a long, U-shaped table in an air-conditioned conference room at the Getty Villa in Malibu, theorizing, listening and pondering out loud whose head to put on a headless 1,800-year-old Roman statue.

The result of their scholarly exchanges and deliberations would determine whether the future identity of the monumental white marble semi-nude, 2nd century male being reassembled in the Getty's workshop would be the Roman god Bacchus or the real-life boy lover of the Emperor Hadrian, known as Antinuous, or the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great.

Imagine such a group in future millenniums trying to decide whether a headless torso dating from 20th century America was originally a likeness of Elvis Presley, Truman Capote or Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Such challenges have faced collectors and curators of classical antiquity since Roman statuary began being unearthed by archaeologists in the 17th century, often missing heads and limbs and conclusive identities. The decisions made by museums through the years regarding how best to present and display these precious remains of the Greek and Roman past have reflected changing attitudes toward conservation and its purposes, aligned with improved methods and techniques.

The Saturday workshop convened by the Getty's Antiquities Conservation Department offered a case study in the current state of the rarefied craft. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that conservation became a profession and the custom of restoring damaged statues by whatever means was supplanted by the desire to display them closer to the state in which they were found.

"How comfortable are we, after all these restorations, to show a statue without a head?" Jens Daehner, the German-born assistant curator of antiquities at the Getty, asked during his own formal remarks that reviewed the statue's various incarnations since its first known display in Rome in 1704, when it carried an ancient female head (not original to it), probably a likeness of Athena but restored with a helmet so as to match an image of Alexander the Great seen on Greek coins. Though this sounds contrived by today's standards of archaeology, during the Baroque era a preference for complete sculptures allowed and encouraged such improvisation.

After the statue was removed from Italy in 1733 by a Saxon prince and brought to Dresden, it was modified again to include a fig leaf and a spear, still identified as Alexander. Then in 1804, according to a contemporary catalog of the museum's collection, it became Bacchus (Dionysus to the Greeks), a result of prevailing notions about its body type and drapery style, but retained the previous head and helmet associated with Alexander -- while losing the earlier restored right arm along with the fig leaf and spear.

Changing parts

WHAT Podany referred to as "the unrecognized power of the restorer" was demonstrated when, during the tenure of the sculptor Emil Cauer the Elder as a restorer in the Dresden antiquities collection, the statue became "Antinuous in the guise of Bacchus," with a new head made of plaster and a new plaster right arm attached.

Then, in 1894, a new director of the museum replaced Cauer's Antinuous head with a plaster cast of another Antinuous on display in the British Museum. The right arm was again removed, and this was the state of the statue when it was placed in storage during the Dresden museum's closure due to World War II. It was not damaged during the bombing of Dresden but in June 1945 was shipped to Moscow along with the rest of the collection, regarded as the spoils of war.

By the time it was returned to Dresden by train in 1958, the statue had suffered extensive damage in transit and had broken into 158 pieces. It remained out of sight, stored in four wooden crates until those crates were air-freighted to the Getty in November.

In his remarks, Daehner mentioned the "high, wide chest" to be a signifier of Antinuous, yet the absence of long hair on the shoulders pointed again to the god of wine. "I am convinced we are dealing with a statue of Dionysus," the curator said. He also noted that a piece of paper plugged into a plastered hole turned out to be a page from a book published in 1894, but this detail did not aid the investigation.

After Marc Walton, a scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, showed a microscopic slide of the statue's Carrara marble exterior that looked like the surface of the moon and revealed "multiple plasters, referring to different campaigns of restoration," the group adjourned to the studio to see the statue itself, headless but otherwise impressive. It rose somewhat larger than life (6 feet, 8 inches) from a wood pallet, its white torso supported temporarily by a heavy chain hoist. Seeing the statue reassembled for the first time in their lifetimes, the scholars and conservators circled it and examined the details of its drapery; the pitch, or attitude, of its interface with the platform; the fissures and lines revealing where the fragments had been attached." - More
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