Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Boxer among 50 Hellenistic Bronzes in Getty Center exhibit

A history resource article by  © 2015

Terme Boxer photographed at the Palazzo Massimo alle
Terme in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
1st century BCE Roman copy of 3rd century Greek
original by Apollonius 
I was excited to read that one of my favorite ancient bronze sculptures, "The Terme Boxer", is part of an exhibit of 50 large scale Hellenistic bronze sculptures at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on display until November 1, 2015.  I have been fortunate to see the sculpture twice at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme venue of the National Roman Museum on two different visits to Rome and now it is coming here!  I browsed through the press materials and see that several other bronzes I am familiar with are also in the exhibit including the "Sleeping Eros" from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the bronze and copper "Portrait of a Poet (possibly Sophocles)" and the "Portrait of a North African Man" from the collections of The British Museum and the Getty's own "Victorious Youth" and "Herme of Dionysos".

In the Great Courses lecture series "Art across the Ages" Professor Ori Z. Soltes of Georgetown University explains that when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and brought much of India under Greek influence, the exchange of cultures resulted in a shift of emphasis in art from the more distant religious deities to more human subjects with which viewers could identify.  Although the blended cultures had features familiar to different members of society, a sense of alienation was also experienced.

"With alienation came the need for gods that are not merely diminished Olympians but actual humans such as Heracles and Alexander, and for gods that exhibit "sympathos" (feeling with us) and "empathos" (feeling one with us)," Soltes observes.  "Hellenistic art is art that engages the moment and shows and interest in the extremes of human experience..."The dialogues of tension and relaxation, of revelation and concealment, of motion and stasis, are spoken..."

Soltes says Hellenistic art is often about blurred lines between established human demarcations.  He points out that "Sleeping Eros", one of the sculptures in this exhibit, blurs the lines between innocence and danger.  The sleeping babe belies the divine power of the son of Aphrodite who can shoot an arrow imbuing even a god like Apollo with mad lust while another of Eros' arrows can fate an innocent maid like Daphne with disgust for her ardent suitor to the extent that she begs her father for escape and her father responds by transforming her into a laurel tree.  (This tragic tale is the subject of one of my favorite sculptures of all of those I have seen, Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne", a work of almost translucent marble that resides in the Villa Borghese in Rome.)

Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne" photographed at the Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy
 Jean-Pierre Dalbéra © 2011 reused with permission.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Getty Center will be hosting a bronze casting workshop that will give participants the opportunity to create a medallion using the lost-wax casting process as well as a portrait sculpting workshop using the exhibit as inspiration.  On October 25, Andrew Stewart, professor of ancient Mediterranean art at UC Berkeley will trace the origins and development of Greek victor statues from the 6th century to the Hellenistic period.

Here's the official press release:

During the Hellenistic era artists around the Mediterranean created innovative, realistic sculptures of physical power and emotional intensity. Bronze—with its reflective surface, tensile strength, and ability to hold the finest details—was employed for dynamic compositions, graphic expressions of age and character, and dazzling displays of the human form. 

Closeup of the hands of the Terme Boxer photographed at the
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch
© 2009. 1st century BCE Roman copy of 3rd century
Greek original by Apollonius 
On view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from July 28 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 more 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 lifelike 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.” 

Bronze and copper portrait of a poet, "The Arundel Head"
200-1 BCE Smyrna, Turkey.  Photographed at
The British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Potts continued: “The Getty Museum is proud to collaborate on this project with our colleagues in Florence at the Palazzo Strozzi, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana, along with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C..” 
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. 

Bronze Portrait of a North African Man from
Cyrene.  Greek 300-150 BCE
Photographed at the British Museum by
Mary Harrsch © 2006.

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is especially remarkable for bringing together 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.”
Herm of Dionysos Attributed to the Workshop of
Boëthos of Kalchedon 200-100 BCE
Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch
© 2010
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.”  
Closeup of Sleeping Eros Greek 300-100 BCE.  Photographed at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2007.
 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.  
The iconic Terme Boxer on loan from the National Roman Museum, with its realistic scars and bruises, stands out as the epitome of the modern understanding of Hellenistic art, employing minute detail and an emphatic, arresting subject. The weary fighter, slumped and exhausted after his brutal competition, combines the power and pathos that is unique to Hellenistic sculpture.  
Closeup of the scarred face of the Terme Boxer photographed
at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009
 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.  

Closeup of Victorious Athlete, "The Getty Bronze"
Greek 300-100 BCE.  Photographed at the
Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch  © 2010
 Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is curated by Jens Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin, both of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; 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.  
The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, also titled Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, edited by Daehner and Lapatin. The richly illustrated book is the first comprehensive volume on large-scale Hellenistic bronze statuary and includes significant new research in archaeological, art-historical, and scientific essays. Published by Getty Publications, it is designed to be the standard reference on the subject.  
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. More information can be found at

I would encourage any of you who will be traveling to the Los Angeles area between now and November 1 to make time to view this astounding collection of ancient art.  The exhibit then travels to Washington D.C. where it will be on display at the National Gallery of Art from December 13, 2015 - March 20, 2016. 

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