Review: 'Sicily' at Getty Villa looms larger than life

There are at least three great reasons to see "Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome," the newly opened antiquities exhibition at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. A major sculpture anchors each of the show's three rooms, and together they tell an accelerating story of artistic and social power on the ancient Mediterranean island.

Chronologically, the first is a straightforward male torso, his finely chiseled marble body quietly brimming with latent energy. Second comes a preening charioteer, physically just larger than life but expressively very much so. And third is a depiction of a minor god with major fertility on his mind, his powerful physicality an embodiment of the contortions of carnal lust, both corporeal and psychological.


FOR THE RECORD:
"Sicily" exhibition: In the April 10 Calendar section, a review of the Getty Villa's "Sicily" exhibition misspelled the name of the artist Kimon as Kiron. —


The torso — a fragment of a kouros (or standing nude youth), probably made for a funerary monument around 500-480 BC — is a fine example of its kind. Even with legs cut off at the thigh and without any arms, never mind the missing head, the emphatically frontal, gracefully proportioned body seems poised to move, its skin taut over firm musculature.

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This figure bristles with the potential for imminent action, unlike the everlasting rigidity of ancient Egyptian sculpture from which the kouros format probably derives. In statuary meant to adorn a dead man's tomb, that potential is an oddly comforting development.

The brilliant sculpture of a charioteer, made less than 25 years later, is the exhibition's knockout work. He's also missing arms (and feet), but you don't need full limbs to see what a beaming, gallant showoff the unknown artist has created.

The figure stands with his body slightly twisting in space, as if turning to wave. Like any victor acknowledging the applauding throng from the podium, it's a gesture you've seen on such figures as Ryan Lochte at London's Olympics and the latest starlet negotiating the Oscars or Emmys red carpet. His weight is carried on the pivoting left leg, jaunty hip thrust out to receive his hand and grinning head turned slightly to the side.

The athlete's proud demeanor is not surprising. In mainland Greece and its colonial outposts, the pounding four-horse chariot race was the heart-stopping culmination of extravagant athletic games. The winner deserved the accolades and prizes showered on him for prevailing, such as an imposing black-figure vase decorated with a charioteer and rearing horses installed nearby. Better than a medal, the functional trophy would have been one of dozens of jars filled with olive oil harvested from Athena's sacred grove.

The "Mozia Charioteer," named after the little island along the western coast of Sicily where it was found, is an even bigger prize. The bodily naturalism of its complex pose pulls a viewer all the way around the figure for a 360-degree view. That's one reason why it is regarded among the finest ancient Greek sculptures in the round to have survived.

Incidentally, I highly recommend shifting your own body into position to mirror the sculpture's pose as you're examining it. You might feel foolish doing it in the gallery, but you'll walk away having learned a lot.

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One thing you'll discover is the jaw-dropping delicacy of the carving. The skin of the kouros torso reveals the musculature moving underneath, but the charioteer's sculptor added yet another layer — a pleated tunic, which miraculously reveals the taut skin beneath and finally the underlying bodily structure. It's as if you've been given X-ray vision.

The layered illusion multiplies at the back, where the pleated cloth pulls gently across the turning torso. At the hip it subtly bunches beneath the athlete's firm fingertips (although the charioteer's arms are missing, his hand remains attached to the torso.). Small moments such as these are marvels of what could be called kinesthetic vision, in which a perception of slight but revealing physical strain appears.

Physical strain explodes in the third sculpture — a 5-1/2 foot figure of fertility god Priapos, who would stand at least 6 feet tall if his body were not contorted into a nearly impossible double-S curve. (Try to ape that pose in the gallery, and you might fall over.) The severity of the contortion suggests psychological as much as physical distortion.

Given the deity's outrageous sexual exhibitionism, that's no surprise.

A kind of cosmopolitan pornography dating from 250-200 BC, the limestone sculpture has long-since lost the enormous, erect wooden phallus at which the bearded fellow once intently stared. (Since it's gone, he now seems to be marveling at the loss.) The myth of Priapos is complex, claiming several variations; but in general it tells of a cursed, ugly child of Aphrodite who was banished from Olympus to a life on Earth, where his huge but impotent member generated both alarm and mirth.

Working with the lender museum in Syracuse, Sicily, the city where the Priapos sculpture is thought to have been made (it was found 40 years ago at the bottom of a local well), Getty conservators helped fill in missing portions of the grizzled head with an easily distinguishable — and removable — synthetic compound.

From the leering grin on his lavishly bearded face to the chunky, curled toes that seem to grip the ground to keep the precariously leaning body from tipping over, the sculpture's exaggerated extravagance reflects the decadence in what had become an inordinately powerful Greek city-state at the southeast corner of Sicily.

Altogether the show's 85 sculptures, painted vases, gold ritual vessels, playful architectural decorations and various object-fragments demonstrate the artistic sophistication of the era. That's also self-evident in a beautiful array of 59 silver and gold coins — cast-relief sculptures no bigger than your thumb, which include an exceedingly rare mintage showing Zeus enthroned. Some coins are even signed by the artist, such as a prolific fellow named Kiron, while frontal and three-quarter depictions of heads, rather than profiles, are certainly unusual.

The exhibition was co-organized by Getty curator Claire Lyons and Michael Bennett of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, where it travels in September. It intends to show how Sicilian antiquity was not merely the passive recipient of Greek culture between its colonization late in the 8th century BC and its Roman conquest half a millennium later. Judging the success of that aim, however, is difficult.

Five hundred years is a long time, so it's reasonable to assume an autonomous Sicilian Greek civilization flourished in the interim, owing much to the mainland but distinct from it. The most obvious possible difference comes in a number of painted terra-cotta masks and sculptures of black slaves, which suggest the proximity of North Africa. (Carthage is closer to Sicily than Athens is, although the trade route around the tip of Italy kept up steady interaction between the island and Greece.)

Also on view is a leaf from the medieval Archimedes Palimpsest, the only surviving manuscript-copy of musings in geometry and physics by the Syracuse-born scientific genius Archimedes, who was killed during the Roman conquest.

Whether this art is thoroughly distinct from contemporaneous production in Athens and elsewhere is hard to say without complete certainty about its origins. Was a given object indigenous or imported? (The well-illustrated book that accompanies the show helps to make the case.) Materials give some clue since, for example, limestone is abundant in Sicily but marble isn't.

Either way the show is impressive. Even today Sicily is a remarkable place, at once rugged and refined, and this show demonstrates just how long that has been the case.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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'Sicily'

What: "Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome"

Where: Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades

When: Through Aug. 19. Closed Tuesdays.

Information: (310) 440-7300 or http://www.getty.edu

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