A skull session over a statue

Special to The Times

ON A recent sunny Saturday, while most Southern Californians were deployed somewhere enjoying a weekend hiatus, 20 art historians, conservators and museum officials shifted in their chairs around a long, U-shaped table in an air-conditioned conference room at the Getty Villa in Malibu, theorizing, listening and pondering out loud whose head to put on a headless 1,800-year-old Roman statue.

The result of their scholarly exchanges and deliberations would determine whether the future identity of the monumental white marble semi-nude, 2nd century male being reassembled in the Getty's workshop would be the Roman god Bacchus or the real-life boy lover of the Emperor Hadrian, known as Antinuous, or the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great.

Imagine such a group in future millenniums trying to decide whether a headless torso dating from 20th century America was originally a likeness of Elvis Presley, Truman Capote or Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Such challenges have faced collectors and curators of classical antiquity since Roman statuary began being unearthed by archaeologists in the 17th century, often missing heads and limbs and conclusive identities. The decisions made by museums through the years regarding how best to present and display these precious remains of the Greek and Roman past have reflected changing attitudes toward conservation and its purposes, aligned with improved methods and techniques.

The Saturday workshop convened by the Getty's Antiquities Conservation Department offered a case study in the current state of the rarefied craft. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that conservation became a profession and the custom of restoring damaged statues by whatever means was supplanted by the desire to display them closer to the state in which they were found.

"We undertook this because of our interest in the history of restoration," said Jerry Podany, the head of antiquities conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum since 1985. "This piece has been apart and put back together several times."

He spoke from a podium at one end of the table, addressing his Getty colleagues, along with a delegation from Germany's Dresden State Museum, which owns the statue.

"How comfortable are we, after all these restorations, to show a statue without a head?" Jens Daehner, the German-born assistant curator of antiquities at the Getty, asked during his own formal remarks that reviewed the statue's various incarnations since its first known display in Rome in 1704, when it carried an ancient female head (not original to it), probably a likeness of Athena but restored with a helmet so as to match an image of Alexander the Great seen on Greek coins. Though this sounds contrived by today's standards of archaeology, during the Baroque era a preference for complete sculptures allowed and encouraged such improvisation.

After the statue was removed from Italy in 1733 by a Saxon prince and brought to Dresden, it was modified again to include a fig leaf and a spear, still identified as Alexander. Then in 1804, according to a contemporary catalog of the museum's collection, it became Bacchus (Dionysus to the Greeks), a result of prevailing notions about its body type and drapery style, but retained the previous head and helmet associated with Alexander -- while losing the earlier restored right arm along with the fig leaf and spear.

Changing parts

What Podany referred to as "the unrecognized power of the restorer" was demonstrated when, during the tenure of the sculptor Emil Cauer the Elder as a restorer in the Dresden antiquities collection, the statue became "Antinuous in the guise of Bacchus," with a new head made of plaster and a new plaster right arm attached.

Then, in 1894, a new director of the museum replaced Cauer's Antinuous head with a plaster cast of another Antinuous on display in the British Museum. The right arm was again removed, and this was the state of the statue when it was placed in storage during the Dresden museum's closure due to World War II. It was not damaged during the bombing of Dresden but in June 1945 was shipped to Moscow along with the rest of the collection, regarded as the spoils of war.

By the time it was returned to Dresden by train in 1958, the statue had suffered extensive damage in transit and had broken into 158 pieces. It remained out of sight, stored in four wooden crates until those crates were air-freighted to the Getty in November.

In his remarks, Daehner mentioned the "high, wide chest" to be a signifier of Antinuous, yet the absence of long hair on the shoulders pointed again to the god of wine. "I am convinced we are dealing with a statue of Dionysus," the curator said. He also noted that a piece of paper plugged into a plastered hole turned out to be a page from a book published in 1894, but this detail did not aid the investigation.

After Marc Walton, a scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, showed a microscopic slide of the statue's Carrara marble exterior that looked like the surface of the moon and revealed "multiple plasters, referring to different campaigns of restoration," the group adjourned to the studio to see the statue itself, headless but otherwise impressive. It rose somewhat larger than life (6 feet, 8 inches) from a wood pallet, its white torso supported temporarily by a heavy chain hoist. Seeing the statue reassembled for the first time in their lifetimes, the scholars and conservators circled it and examined the details of its drapery; the pitch, or attitude, of its interface with the platform; the fissures and lines revealing where the fragments had been attached.

The consensus seemed to be that it was more beautiful than they had thought, based on old photographs and catalog engravings. Moritz Woelk, director of the Dresden museum's sculpture collection, was visibly pleased by what he was looking at. "We imagined it to be more ugly from the photographs and fragments," he said.

Christiane Vorster, a professor at the University of Bonn who oversees the catalog of ancient sculptures at the Dresden museum, said: "What struck me most over the past two days was the quality of the sculpture -- it's so much more than just fragments."

And the Getty team was not yet done. "One of the goals," Podany said, "will be to infill some of the fractures so as to make them less disturbing."

Reflecting current methods and procedures, however, he said that anything he and the other conservators did would be "inert and reversible," compared to the old-fashioned joinery of iron pins that rusted and plaster patches that often corroded.

Yet Podany still believed in touching up the subject a bit, at least for its December unveiling at the Getty Villa. "If you show all the restoration marks," he said, "you can't see the statue."

"Frequently statues are carved from a single block of marble," said Karol Wight, curator of antiquities at the Getty, as she pointed to the obvious separation of this torso from the lower body, connected by a sizable tenon, or tongue, that fit into the bottom of the torso. When the Getty team assembled these two main pieces, it was the first time in 60 years, they had been back together.

Resolving a drama

By LATE afternoon, when the seven-hour colloquium had concluded, the group had not reached a decision as to the clear identity of the statue. In advance of the conference, Woelk had led some at the Getty to believe that he favored restoring the head of Alexander so as to acknowledge the statue's Baroque past, but as one scholar said, "an Alexander head would mitigate the sensuality factor."

"There's no one correct solution to restoration," said Mette Moltesen, a curator of Greek and Roman sculpture from Copenhagen, "when you consider the grave misfortunes that have become some of our sculptures."

If the big mystery was not solved, the question raised earlier by Daehner about whether the museum was ready to exhibit the statue without a head turned out to be the clue to the resolution of the drama at hand. A week later, Wight announced that the statue would go on display at the Getty Villa in December without a head or any of the earlier restorations of arms or accessories; however, those heads and the missing arm will also be on view as part of an exhibition titled "Reconstructing Identity: Statue of a God From Dresden," which will illustrate the changing art and science of restoration and conservation.

"The general consensus is that the statue is more likely Dionysus rather than Antinuous," Podany said.

But the case is not closed. "Where we are right now," Podany said, "we look at each piece and try to balance points of view," with regard to what best serves the public understanding and appreciation of ancient sculptures and the images they bring us. "If someone disagrees with us in the future -- which they no doubt will -- they can add or take away from what we've done."

The labor and expertise expended by the Getty's conservators, in other words, has been devoted not to hammering a stamp of interpretation on a Roman artifact but to rescuing it to allow scholars and members of the public in the years ahead to experience the statue at some intersection of history and their own imagination.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°