“Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
(December 13, 2015 – March 20, 2016)
Imagine a visitor from another planet touching down and arriving at a single point in our civilization and finding only figurative artwork as evidence of our existence. And then picture that individual holding in his or her hands, a bust of bronze sculpture so human-like, proportional, and with such detail of facial features that the wisps of hair across a cheek are shown, and examples of expressions of subtle sadness and bold assurance are revealed. It would be approximately 340 to 50 B.C. — the height of the Hellenistic Greek period, revealing the finest bronze busts and full standing sculptures of the human form, epitomizing the high point of all cultural artistic development, as measured against any other period of civilization, including our own. Now — fast forward to today, and find some 50 such remaining examples (actually 1/3rd of all known pieces on the planet) on display, in a one-of-a-kind, exceptionally curated and beautifully displayed exhibit.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has organized a remarkable collection from museums around the world, that highlights the accomplishment, skill and cultural advancement of this brief moment in time. To reinforce the uniqueness of this opportunity, the Director of the National Gallery, Earl Powell, points out that “this is the first time so many (Greek) bronzes have been gathered together from Europe, North Africa and the United States.” Here now on display, in an intimate gallery space, away from the hoards of visitors in the main gallery spaces at the National Gallery of Art, is an exquisite exhibit offering a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these precious and historic works of art.
In addition to the rarity of this circumstance, the viewer is allowed an up-close and direct experience of examination as most of these sculpture are “in the round” (i.e. fully 3 dimensional), and with many of the larger standing bronze sculptures, and busts, out of plexi-cases. It is a unique chance to see, with un-obstructed sight line, the detailed skill of artistry, craftsmanship and technique that rivals any period in cultural achievement and most importantly the innovation of true human likeness. In the words of the in-gallery curator guide, “this is the birth of portraiture… a specific sense of personage… individualized… features of an actual human being.” This is truly an all new approach and execution. Hellenistic sculptors are no longer depending on an idealized figure — replicated over and over again. But instead, the artist is responsible for the accuracy and depiction of his subject.
The move to bronze as a material, during the Hellenistic period, allowed Greek sculptors, highly specialized in this medium, a vehicle to offer greater human likeness and expressiveness that marble statues of the past could not provide. The evolution to the “lost-wax” casting process for bronze (a multi-step casting process that utilizes poured molding from wax to molten bronze transfer) was the key technique and innovation that allowed sectioning of molded arms and legs and torsos that would later be attached, to become a giant full standing human sculpture maybe 12 feet or taller. To further human-likeness, the bronze facial features were etched with whiskers, eyebrows, facial scars and marks, as well as cosmetic additions of lips of molded copper, eyes made of marble or precious stone — all to further exhibit human qualities.
Thousands of these bronze statues existed during the Hellenistic period (roughly between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., and the control of Greece by the Roman Empire, by the time of the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.). Hellenistic kings, seeking representation for power in public works, after Alexander’s empire was broken-up, used the display of over-sized bronze statues of themselves as a way to assert dominance and self-propaganda in likeness as war heroes and statesman. And with wealth — patronage of the arts grew so that establishment families could show-off class position with such exhibition of likeness. Also, sporting events developed as a very honorable and important feature of ancient Greek society (witness the invention of the Olympiad — pre-cursor to the present-day Olympics); so that bronze representations of athletes, in all forms of physical competition, would have been erected around city-states and stadium arenas.
So why are just a few statues and fragments left remaining? As the curators of this historic exhibit remind us: there were practical reasons — the need to efficiently re-use materials was one of them. New bronzes figures could be re-cast by melting down existing statues, as the course of one leader became favored over someone in the past. And equally, in companion, was the constant need for weaponry for internal order and defense from external enemies – bronze statues were liquefied to be forged into armament; becoming parts of swords, shields and helmets. In fact, most of what is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through this special exhibit, and elsewhere in selective museums around the world, is the result of happenstance. Findings remain few and through mostly accidents; A sunken ancient trade ship dumps its load and a discovery is made at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea in modern times, or buried in the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Herculaneum in 79 A.D., (now a heavily excavated site), a statue is found — accompanied by a painstakingly restorative process. What was once a familiar and an everyday part of the ancient Greek Hellenistic landscape is now a small treasure of examples.
A very hands-on, interpretative audio guide tour coupled with an excellent exhibit gallery wall rendering of an ancient Greek city-state or polis, provides a glimpse of what some of the temples, market places and government and administrative buildings of these city-states looked like, adorned with hundreds of bronze sculptures.
Alas — here is your chance to see the few examples that will, if preserved, tell future generations of a time in ancient history, where a culture reached a stellar highpoint. These bronze sculptures speak back to you in terms of artistry, skill and presentation of the human form in excruciating detail, revealing emotions and a shared human nature. “The Power and the Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World”, at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C., provokes reflection and amazement as we the viewer are provided a treasured glimpse backwards into the zenith of Hellenistic Greece. ∎
Cover photo credit:
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze)
Head of Apollo, 50 BC- AD 50
overall size: 51 x 40 x 38 cm (20 1/16 x 15 3/4 x 14 15/16 in.)
height of the face: 23 cm (9 1/16 in.)
weight: 77 lb.
Province of Salerno- Museums Sector