The austere yet subtly beautiful Getty kouros is: a) one of only 13 archaic Greek sculptures of standing youths that remain relatively intact, and thus ranks among the most important ancient works of art ever to have found a home in an American collection; or, b) a brilliantly designed and carved fake, probably dating from circa 1980, rather than circa 530 BC, which nonetheless leaves your head spinning in astonished recognition of its undeniably skillful execution.
Don't ask me which it is. Indeed, don't ask the J. Paul Getty Museum either. They're not sure if it's authentically antique or a modern forgery. Nor is a sizable chunk of the international community of scholars that, during the past decade, has poked and probed the larger-than-life-size marble statue, both physically and intellectually. No universally held consensus has emerged.
At an international symposium held in Athens last May, in which art historians, archeologists and scientists gathered to present their latest findings and to examine the statue against comparable sculptures in the Greek capital, opinions were sharply divided. Generally, they cleaved in two.
Most of the art people gave the kouros a thumbs down. Stylistically, it's quite odd, combining anomalous features found in three different regional traditions and at three different periods in 6th-Century BC Greece. Did an unusually gifted forger assemble a clever pastiche of known styles?
Most of the science people gave the statue a thumbs up. Tests of the surface chemistry of the stone concur with antique models. Furthermore, not a trace of modern tool-marking has been found anywhere on the figure; the carving marks are all consistent with ancient methods. How could a forger not have made even a slight slip, and then have convincingly aged the surface of the stone?
Needless to say, the unresolved conflict carries considerable stakes. If the Getty kouros is authentic, it will have a major impact on the study of Greek art before the classical era. If it's not, it will have a major impact on the study of modern techniques of forgery.
Tuesday the Malibu museum opened a small exhibition to give this highly specialized--and widely publicized--controversy a public airing, for the benefit of the lay visitor. It's a useful introduction to the range of considerations that go into determining the authenticity of works of art, especially those made more than 2,000 years ago, and to the specific application of those categories of analysis to the mischievously grinning kouros.
The disputed sculpture, which the Getty still identifies as dating from circa 530 BC, is flanked by plaster casts of two verified kouroi--one of which was itself initially believed to be a forgery when it first came to public view in Paris in the 1930s. In a nearby corner stands a marble head and torso of a known fake, which surfaced on the market only three years ago. (The Getty acquired the forged head and torso for study purposes.) The two plasters and the marble forgery claim a number of marked stylistic similarities to the Getty kouros, while their more subtle differences slowly but surely become apparent.
There's a good deal to read in this show, not only in labels describing the four objects, but in a half-dozen text panels that ring the small gallery. (There's also a fascinating photo-panel, which shows the Getty kouros broken in the seven pieces in which it originally came to the museum, eight years ago.) Clearly and concisely, the texts lay out the complex process of authentication, giving examples of what was found in the case at hand.
Study of the object focused on four indicators: the origin of the marble; the techniques and tools used by the unknown artist--whether ancient or modern--to carve the sculpture; the physical characteristics of the weathered surface of the stone, and, finally, its style.
Together, the information creates a kind of biography for the stone youth. Not all his secrets are by any means revealed; still, it's remarkable how much can be gleaned. The kouros has been dated, for instance, according to the pronounced stylistic naturalism of the sculpture's feet, which, as the figure's most anatomically advanced feature, required ample artistic precedent on which the carver could build.
Most important for the museum-goer is the nearby presence of the plaster copies and the forgery, against which the kouros and the supporting information can be checked. Compare those naturalistic feet of the Getty statue with those of the plaster Anavysos and Tenea kouroi; the feet of the first are very similar, and thus the Anavysos sculpture is likely from about the same date, while the second are more rudimentary, and thus the Tenea figure is probably earlier.
This comparative process underscores how no work of art is finally isolated and alone, existing on an autonomous plane, but is instead entangled within a complex cultural web. If another, similarly illuminating element could be said to be missing from the show, perhaps it would be a nearby pedestal holding a stack of 9 million one-dollar bills, which is what the Getty is reported to have paid for the statue.
In fact, among the most compelling features of the exhibition is the way it nakedly contradicts our casual assumption that a museum is a commanding and authoritative institution. No definitive answer is offered to the question that prompted the show. Instead, the Getty shrugs and throws up its hands. Study will continue, for knowledge is what it's about.
Any judgment is frankly provisional, this exhibition says. It turns out to be a surprisingly reassuring thought.
J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, through Sept. 5. Closed Mondays. Parking reservations required: (310) 458-2003.