Art review: ‘Beauty & Power: Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Peter Marino Collection’ at the Huntington


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Peter Marino, the fashionable New York interior designer and architect whose small collection of Renaissance and Baroque bronze statuettes went on view Saturday at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, likes to dress in leather. It’s his signature style.

The familiar sartorial codes are emblematic of an S&M gay demimonde. Black motorcycle cap and shades, muscle shirt, arm bands, tattoos, studded gloves, silver-chain jewelry, black leather pants -- it’s Tom of Finland chic, a deliberate overstatement (and even parody) of rough-and-tumble masculine cliches. As personal style, the look went out with the Village People; but, as a mainstay of heterosexual Halloween costuming, biker drag has entered the hall of fame of vernacular trends.


If that sounds incompatible with an enthusiasm for the sublime refinement of 16th-to-18th century tabletop bronzes, made for the cultivated noble courts of Florence, Versailles and Prague, think again. Decadent display is not the simplistic point of either fashion statement. (Opulent depravity is instead the realm of ‘The Aristocrats,’ the marvelously obscene joke at the heart of the 2005 documentary film by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza.) Rather, the point is an open celebration of apparent difference from non-holiday social norms. This is not a collection of Hummel figurines.

Marino’s 28 statuettes, many of them quite fine, don’t comprise anything close to a coherent exhibition. There are far too few of them from too wide a spectrum for that. But, consider the following lengthy sample of some of the sculptures’ subjects, while keeping the collector’s wardrobe in mind:

-- A stark naked muscleman strides forward, a hefty club resting lightly on his shoulder (‘Hercules’)

--Two butch musclemen grapple, wrapping their bare limbs tightly around each other’s naked torsos (‘Hercules and Antaeus’)

-- A beautiful man wielding a knife begins to skin the flesh off a writhing freak, who is lashed to a tree (‘The Flaying of Marsyas’)

-- One brawny nude man flails at another with the jawbone of an ass (‘Samson and the Philistine’)

-- A handsome boy brings down a powerful older man, once thought invincible (‘David Triumphant Over Goliath’)

-- A bearded man in a loincloth is tied to a post, prepared to receive a brutal whipping (‘Christ at the Column’)

-- A beautiful woman who has sworn off men turns her ardent devotion toward a powerful female hunter (‘Daphne’)

-- A handsome, athletic young man seduces a powerful older gentleman, luring him to his doom (‘Mercury with the Head of Argus’)

-- A beautiful princess humiliates her strong lover by dressing him in women’s clothing and forcing him to do her household chores (‘Iole and Hercules’)

All the statuettes’ motifs come from Greek mythology, Rome’s Imperial pantheon or the Bible. Obviously a primary theme of this small selection of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes is the theatrical, sexualized display of domination and submission. Just about the only thing missing from the show is a nicotine-stained catalog essay by Fran Lebowitz.

As an exhibition of one person’s art collection, the Huntington show is far too narrow to add much to our larger understanding of Renaissance and Baroque art. But it does shine a small, bright light onto one collector’s aestheticized obsessions. Inadvertently, it also demonstrates just how culturally and historically mainstream they actually are.

-- Christopher Knight Beauty & Power: Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Peter Marino Collection, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, (626) 405-2100, through Jan. 24.

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