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Bronze sculptures in 'Power and Pathos' at the Getty capture pivotal era

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic

A telling moment of sly wit crops up early in "Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World," the glorious and unprecedented exhibition of works from the ancient Mediterranean newly opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood.

A fundamental transformation in art is crystallized through a savvy juxtaposition of two extraordinary sculptures. It's a marvelous example of how artful exhibition design can advance curatorial interpretation of extraordinary works of art, illuminating history.

The life-size statue of a seated boxer, an extremely rare example of a fully preserved Greek bronze from the third century BC, shows a bearded, brawny, heavily muscled and mature man. His shoulders slump, elbows resting on his thighs. Fur-lined leather gloves are prominently bound to his wrists and forearms. One hand falls slack across the other, underlining his larger pose of total exhaustion.

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A brutal fight has just ended. The weary boxer, his cheeks swollen and mouth slightly ajar, turns his head up and to his extreme right. He looks across the room.

There, his line of sight lands squarely on the life-size bronze statue of a victorious young athlete astride a pedestal, otherwise famously known as the Getty Bronze. Lithe and elegant, and almost as complete in its preservation as the boxer sculpture, a perfect youth is shown raising a now-missing laurel wreath. A champion crowns himself with glory.

The winning athlete's head is turned slightly to his left, toward the worn-out boxer slumped nearby. While the two sculptures' eyes do not meet, the athletes have been placed in subtle, even moving conversation with each other.

One is young, exquisitely refined and triumphant, and the other older, rougher and stoically resigned. Getty curators Jens Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin have carefully positioned them far enough away from each other that no confusion arises to imply that they were made to be seen as an ensemble. Yet, they are also close enough that there's an inescapable dialogue between them.

It speaks volumes.

The Hellenistic Mediterranean represents the era when a humanistic heart began to beat vigorously within Western art. Before, in Classical Greece, art promoted a ritualized, sometimes remote, even chilly Olympian ideal. Now, lived experience was being embodied.

Pathos, as the show's title identifies this new aesthetic charge, flows like an electric current within these two powerful sculptures — and between them.

"Power and Pathos" covers a lot of ground. The show surveys bronze sculpture from the period between the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon in 323 B.C., just before the military genius' 33rd birthday, and 31 B.C., when Rome conquered the last fragment of Alexander's once-sprawling empire.

Bronze was ubiquitous in Hellenistic sculpture, supplanting marble, but examples are rare today. The material for swords and ploughshares are interchangeable, depending on fluctuating demands. Thousands of sculptures were melted down, the bronze repurposed.

But bronze made the epochal artistic change possible. Molding and casting in molten metal allows for a sophisticated degree of refined detail that marble — especially painted marble, which was the previous standard — could not achieve.

The sculptor Lysistratos, brother of Alexander's favored portraitist, Lysippos, is even known to have made casts directly from living body parts, like some antique George Segal.

Bronze forms can be so particularized that portrait sculpture was virtually invented in the Hellenistic world. A room of 11 portraits – all male (only three female figures are among the show's 51 objects, silently italicizing the title's "power" half) — is marked by a vast range of individualized human demeanors.

Alexander's empire wasn't monolithic. Nothing that stretched from Macedonia and Egypt across all of Asia Minor and Persia to the edge of India possibly could be. But artistically he had been savvy enough to consolidate his own ravishingly idealized, god-like image as pre-eminent. He kept Lysippos busy.

When Alexander died, the empire broke up. Dozens of his ambitious generals controlled regions and city-states. A diversity of local and specific personalities began to emerge. Bronze portraiture fit the bill.

Bronze also possesses great tensile strength, far beyond marble's capacity. No exposed struts or supports hidden in a carved tree stump are necessary to allow a monumental figure to stand tall. Realism is heightened.

A breathtaking room features multiple versions of the conventional subject of an "Apoxyomenos" – a standing nude athlete using a scraper to wipe the oil, sweat and dirt of a competition from his silken skin. A spectacular, larger-than-life figure from the first century BC, discovered in the waters off Croatia in 1997, stands unaided.

The seeming perfection, even the nearly impossible beauty of the man diverges from the mundane cleansing routine in which, head lowered, he is casually engaged. (You feel like a voyeur.) This is an immortal divinity stepping down to become fully human, anticipating the conception of god-as-man that would soon emerge in the post-pagan Christian world.

More than anything, though, the unique capacity for bronze to create an illusion of corporeal pathos resides in its light-reflective qualities. Take the portrait of a young aristocrat hiding his hands, which grasp inside the cloak he pulls around his body. The supple shimmer of striated light across his right shoulder is what makes the garment appear taut.

In Hellenistic sculpture, the reflective range goes from sharp highlights glinting off tendrils of hair to a soft, buttery sheen sliding across a body's planes. Light animates bronze in ways not possible with marble, which is most effective in creating surface shadows that help articulate form. By contrast, bronze allows for an interplay between shadow and light, a constantly changing interaction that enlivens the figure.

"Power and Pathos" is filled with eye-openers like this. It includes famous sculptures, such as the so-called "Spinario" from Rome's Capitoline Museum, a seated boy intent on pulling a nettlesome thorn from the bottom of his foot. And there are familiar favorites, like a sleeping Eros that is more fat baby than chubby little god.

It's also startling to be reminded that, when Lorenzo Ghiberti made his fabled bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery in the first quarter of the 15th century, his early Renaissance masterpiece represented the greatest achievement in Western bronze sculpture since the Hellenistic era. That's a gap of a millennium and a half.

Smart museums fulfill the fundamental mission to investigate and illuminate their permanent collections by building exhibitions around significant works of art they possess. The Getty is a smart museum. It has long done such shows with its paintings, photographs, manuscripts and more.

Never did I expect it would be possible to do so around the Getty Bronze, given the rarity of related material and the complexities (and expense) of shipping full-size ancient sculpture. But here it is: The first-ever American museum survey of Hellenistic bronze sculpture, complete with a cogent, briskly articulated array of thematic groupings and a superlative, richly illustrated, very readable catalog.

The show had its debut at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, in March, and concludes its tour at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in December, following its closure at the Getty on Nov. 1. (All three museums contributed to its organization.) Miss it at your peril. Nothing like this will come around again for a very long time.

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