Run, don’t walk, to the exhibition of Hellenistic bronzes at Palazzo Strozzi. Beyond the sheer beauty of this assembly of ancient statues, the elegantly curated exhibition, ‘Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World,’ is so compelling and thought provoking that you may want to visit more than once.
Head of a Man with Kausia. Third century BCE, Kalymnos, Archaeological Museum
Through an unprecedented collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and other museums, 50 outstanding Hellenistic bronzes have been gathered for this exhibition, which runs until June 21, 2015, exploring the development of art in the Hellenistic age, in the third century BCE.
‘The show, which was roughly six years in the making, offers a rare opportunity to see these bronzes side by side,’ says Carol Mattusch, professor emerita at George Mason University and advisor to the exhibition. ‘Consider that, of the thousands of bronze sculptures created in the Hellenistic period, roughly 200 remain today and, of those 200, fifty of the best are in this show.’
Statuette of an Artisan. Mid-first century BCE, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And what an opportunity it is. It is hard to fathom the level of sophistication and understanding of the human form that the Greeks achieved during the Hellenistic period. In terms of the techniques and methods of lost-wax casting used for the bronze sculptures, with only minor technological adaptations, it’s still done the same way today—a complicated and labor-intensive process. Unlike marble, a reductive process, the bronze sculptures are built, not once, but three times over. The sculptor works first in clay, then in wax, and finally pours and chafes the bronze. The visitor will immediately notice the intricate and realistic sculpting of hair, facial expressions and bodies achieved through this laborious process. While there are some classically idealized physiques to gape at—most memorable among them the exquisitely reassembled Apoxymenos from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum—there are also an abundance of ‘real’ men and women: some with furrowed or arched brows, others with open or pursed lips. The Head of a Man with a Kausia (a Macedonian sun and rain bonnet), with his weathered face, beaked nose and short ringlets, looks like someone you might encounter in the village square. A statuette of a stocky artisan has looks like someone you’d meet at the bar. These works illustrate how, in the Hellenistic era, sculptors explored beyond the traditional ideals of beauty and created innovative, realistic sculptures.
But along with appreciating the artists’ innovation, the exhibit also asks visitors to question. ‘What is original?’ is what’s asked for the display on the art of replication. Has it ever occurred to you that much of what we see in our world-class museums is essentially ‘copies?’ To further illustrate the point, two figures of Apoxyomenos—a marble from the Uffizi and the bronze from the Kunsthistorisches Museum—are placed side by side. Because of a misunderstanding, at one time the Uffizi figure of the athlete was restored holding a vase instead of the scraper to remove dust and sweat from his body.
Portraits of historical figures displayed alongside large-scale bronze gods, athletes and heroes offer a comprehensive overview of the context—geographical and political—in which they were created, leading to another question: how did these works look and function when they were made? Kenneth Lapatin, a curator at the Getty, explains that none of these works were created as ‘art’ but rather served as communications of influence or remembrance. And they did not sport the weathered patina that we have all grown to love: most were painted in bright colors, with red lips and nipples, to resemble a particular personage more closely.
For those who love a good mystery, Palazzo Strozzi invites visitors of all ages to guess (and write an essay about) who might have stood atop a statue base signed by the ancient sculptor Lysippos—reputed to have created hundreds, possibly a thousand, sculptures, yet not one has ever been found. If you’re up for the challenge, a trip to Athens for two dangles before you as reward.
Just for fun, I tallied the number of miles and days it would take to see the 50 pieces if one had to travel by plane, train and automobile, without taking time to eat or sleep to view them in their home institutions: 12,000 miles and 30 days. For lucky readers stateside, the exhibition will later travel to Los Angeles and Washington, DC.
Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World
Piazza Strozzi 1, Florence
Until June 21, 2015
Statue of an Athlete (Apoxyomenos from Ephesos). 1–50 CE, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
SLOW ART DAY 2015
Palazzo Strozzi is participating in Slow Art Day 2015. Taking place around the world on Saturday, April 11, Slow Art Day aims to calm ‘checklist tickers’ and encourage a more intentional, reflective approach to viewing art. A group visit to the Power and Pathos exhibition will take place at 11am. You’ll look at several pieces—slowly and deliberately—then reflect on them with fellow participants. For more details and to sign up, see the EventBrite for this year’s edition.
Another visit will take place at the church of Ognissanti at 9.30am. Head here for further information and to sign up.