“Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World,” now at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, takes us on a fascinating journey to a world of two thousand years ago: the Hellenistic era, which dates roughly from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. to Rome’s conquest in 30 B.C. of Ptolemaic Egypt, the last remaining “successor kingdom” founded by Alexander’s generals. This is a chance to see so many important, and beautiful, bronzes of the highest quality assembled for the first time in one exhibition.
What brought these Hellenistic statues and reliefs to Washington (after stops at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles) was the thaw in relations between Italian cultural authorities and American museums after, most famously, the Getty returned objects that the Italian Ministry of Culture claimed as part of Italy’s artistic patrimony. This in turn gave Italian museums the green light for a series of important loans; in fact, bronzes from Italy comprise a third of the NGA exhibition.
Several works seen at the Getty are not at the NGA, including, regrettably, one of the greatest Hellenistic sculptures: the moving statue of an exhausted boxer lent from the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. Fortunately, several important works have been added, including the Dancing Faun (Pan) and the Boy Runner, both from the National Archeological Museum, Naples.
Mark Leithauser, NGA’s Chief of Design, has given us yet another of his brilliant installations. The exhibition is spread over several rooms and the number of works in each is never more than ten. This makes for leisurely, studied contemplation, while the placement and juxtaposition of the objects encourages the visitor to compare and contrast one with the other; the viewer becomes an active rather than a passive spectator. A mixture of natural and electric light is carefully calibrated for the topography and surface texture of each bronze.
The exhibition is organized thematically. Sections including “The Formulas of Power: The Image of the Ruler,” “Flesh and Bronze: Bodies Ideal and Extreme,” and “The New Realism of the Divine” help explain important aspects of Hellenistic culture and sculpture. I’m usually not a fan of such thematic organization because viewers, especially of unfamiliar art such as Hellenistic sculpture, benefit from a chronological arrangement, a spine, which helps them order and understand what they are seeing for the first time. Such an organization was clearly impossible for the NGA exhibition, however, because many of the works are difficult to date with precision; a number are dated by century only, and then mostly on the basis of stylistic analysis. Given these difficulties, a thematic, rather than a chronological, organization of the bronzes was the right choice, and the arrangement of the bronzes around various themes is well done and as instructive as possible.
“Hellenistic,” like the labels “Baroque,” “Rococo,” or “Impressionist,” was originally a term of derision, implying a decline from the earlier Classical period of Greek art, but the NGA exhibition shows how wrongheaded that designation was. Instead, the era was creative, innovative, and populated by artists of great talent and originality. It produced an art that appeals to our tastes much more than that of its predecessor, which seems remote and impassive to present-day sensibilities, which are attuned to art as a vehicle of human emotion.
A small (twenty inches high) first-century bronze (National Archeological Museum, Naples) of Alexander the Great on horseback, probably a copy of a statue by the sculptor Lysippos, is the sole image of Alexander in the exhibition, but it’s enough. His head crowned by the royal diadem, his right hand raised (it originally held a sword) to strike a blow, Alexander sits easily on his fierce war horse Boukephalos, whose rearing body, flared nostrils, and rippling musculature convey a sense of unstoppable movement and energy.
Here is the conqueror of a vast swath of the known world, the student of Aristotle who founded an empire that spread beyond his birthplace in ancient Macedonia to North Africa, to present-day India and beyond (the “Power” of the exhibition’s title). Made in Greece, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, Iran, and Yemen, bronzes in the exhibition document the expanse of Alexander’s empire and show, better than words, the influence of the Hellenistic culture that followed in his wake.
These bronzes are emotionally charged (the “Pathos” of the exhibition’s title) and make a striking contrast to the art of the preceding Classical age, memorably described by the pioneering eighteenth-century art historian and archeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann as possessing “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.” The works in the exhibition are anything but simple and quiet. This change towards a more expressive, emotive art is the defining characteristic of Hellenistic art in both stone and bronze. Gods and goddesses now more closely resemble their human votaries, who themselves begin to appear in individualized, realistic portraits.
One of the most remarkable of these is from Delos (National Archeological Museum, Athens). Originally part of a full-length statue, it is a highly realistic image of the torso and head of a man, perhaps in his thirties, looking slightly to the spectator’s right. The fleshiness of his jowls, the furrow in his brow, and the fullness of his lips are unmistakably that of a very distinctive face that we would not be surprised to encounter were we to see it today. Like several other portraits in the exhibition, the inset eyes (the whites are made of ivory paste and the irises are black stone) are startlingly lifelike. It’s tricky to read particular states of mind into portraits, but surely he seems anguished and, perhaps, fearful. Such expressions that run the gamut of human emotion through facial expression herald the birth of Western portraiture as we know it today.
When the nature of art changes, as in the case of portraiture, artists look for materials to best express that change. In bronze, the Hellenistic sculptors found the perfect medium to express the new realism in their art. Because bronze statues are first modeled in wax and clay, two extremely malleable materials, before they are cast in metal, facial expressions, hair, and skin texture can be realized with a verisimilitude impossible in the much harder, less flexible medium of stone. And, because the tensile strength of bronze is so much greater than marble, sculptors could now extend the arms and legs of their figures into space, as in the Boy Runner, who, with his outstretched right hand, arched back, and tensed, wide-spread legs, seems ready to sprint towards us. It was bronze that allowed Hellenistic sculptors to forge such dynamism.
But bronze has a downside: it’s a valuable material that can be melted and repurposed to make a wide variety of things, including non-artistic utilitarian objects such as cannons.
The exhibition begins with a poignant reminder of this loss: a limestone base from Corinth with the inscription “Lysippos made [this],” which once supported a bronze statue by the most influential of the Hellenistic sculptors. Though he was reputed to have made over a thousand statues, none of his works have survived, undoubtedly because they were intentionally destroyed and their metal reused.
Such repurposing was the fate of most Hellenistic bronzes and what survives is just a small fraction of what was made. But, thanks to fishermen who catch bronzes in their nets, and underwater archeologists who discover and explore ancient shipwrecks, new bronzes are occasionally discovered.
A number of objects in the exhibition were hauled from the sea within the last hundred years, several of them showing the devastating erosion caused by centuries underwater. The Statue of a Man (Archeological Museum, Brindisi) was discovered in 1992 at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. Found in pieces and reassembled, it was part of the cargo of a ship carrying hundreds of bronze scraps to be melted down for re-use. This bronze, and other recent finds, are vastly expanding the knowledge of Hellenistic bronzes and, sometimes, challenging long-established views on the period.
Besides being repurposed, Hellenistic bronzes were often replicated. A plaster or clay mold was taken from a statue and then recast in bronze, creating, in essence, a replica. There are several of these recasts in the NGA exhibition, most notably two nearly identical herms (National Museum du Bardo, Tunis; J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu). Consisting of rectangular bases topped by busts of Dionysus, these objects were apotropes meant to ward off evil, much as the way the color blue or pieces of coral are still thought to be protective in some cultures. Although very different in surface texture and color (the one in Tunis was found in a shipwreck), a stylistic and metallurgical analysis of the herms has determined that they were likely produced in the same workshop in Lindos or Delos around the second century B.C. The exhibition affords a rare opportunity to compare them side-by-side.
Often, as in the case of the herms, subtle changes to the surface details of the replica were made in the malleable clay or wax. Many Hellenistic bronzes were made to be duplicated, much like editions of prints. Moreover, in the case of famous cult or ruler statues, replication could, and often did, happen decades or even centuries after the first matrix was made.
Thus, it is a mistake to think of a number of bronzes in the exhibition as “originals,” as one-offs, as something unique in our sense of the word. From Renaissance portrait medals to the multiple after-casts of Rodin’s The Thinker to, unfortunately, Jeff Koons’s Hulks,artists for centuries have continued this process of replication.
The exhibition also touches on many other important aspects of Hellenistic sculpture, including the various metallic compositions of bronzes, the science of underwater archeology, and the use of what is called “retrospective styles” (“anachronizing,” the recreation of styles of the distant past, is perhaps a better word). They all enhance the viewer’s understanding by providing fascinating historical and artistic context.
A large, beautifully illustrated catalogue with essays discussing various aspects of the bronzes accompanies the NGA exhibition. Unlike so many of these catalogues, it’s not just a tome in which the various authors dive deep into their narrow, specialized interests and write what are, essentially, articles better suited for scholarly journals.
Instead, the essays in the “Power and Pathos” catalogue are focused tightly on the general themes of the exhibition, each providing a helpful introduction to the objects on display. Moreover, each is written in understandable English, a refreshing change from the usual jargon-filled art historical prose.
Maybe this is because to become a serious scholar of ancient art you need to know Greek, Latin, German, French, and Italian (the languages necessary to master the enormous amount of important centuries-old literature on the subject) and to be deeply versed in field archeology, ancient history, literature, and mythology. And, with all that laborious investment in learning, you may not be so easily tempted to engage in the sort of superficial theoretical flatulence that one expects from so many of today’s art historians and academics.
One would have wished only for a catalogue essay on the influence of Hellenistic bronzes, because without them the history of European painting and sculpture would have been very different indeed. There can be no greater testimony to its importance and to the NGA’s illuminating exhibition.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 7, on page 38
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