The Hellenistic period (323 b.c.–31 b.c.) in Greek and Mediterranean history marks a momentous development in the medium of sculpture. Though artists and artisans of the time were inspired by classical subject matter, they were innovative and forward thinking in their own right. They began using bronze, rather than marble, to create statues and honorific portraits more realistic than ever before, and an increasing number of affluent collectors were eager to bring these prized creations into their homes.
“Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World,” an unprecedented new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, features more than 50 of these ancient sculptures, shedding light on their scale, fine detail, and astonishingly lifelike features. Highlights include a depiction of a perfectly chiseled Hercules from the first century A.D. and a remarkably naturalistic sculpture of a boy removing a thorn from his foot that is more than 2,000 years old.
In the Hellenistic period, artists were interested in more than just standard ideal figures. We see the first realistic images of children as children, not as miniature adults, and of older figures with balding heads and pot bellies. The sculptures in the exhibition appear to be highly individual portraits—look at their furrowed brows, crows’ feet, bulging chins, broken noses, and fleshy cheeks. But because these features appear in more than one portrait, they appear to have been part of the artistic lingo of the time. How lifelike these portraits truly are is hard to say but the artistic license given to artists to portray their patrons – warts and all – is truly astonishing.
Bronze sculpture is made with the lost-wax casting process, a technique that allows for finer detailing than stone carving. Since bronze is strong, metal sculptures could also have more dynamic than marble sculptures. In antiquity, bronze sculptures were made in multiples and extremely common. The lost-wax casting process allowed for many copies. Thousands of bare pedestals at archaeological sites show us that at one point bronzes were everywhere. Lysippos, sculptor to Alexander the Great, was reported to have made 1,500 bronze statues in his lifetime. None survive today.
Ancient bronze sculptures were melted down for their material, which was recycled into coins and other objects. Only 100 to 200 bronze sculptures from the Hellenistic period survive. The count varies, depending on how you want to count fragments like stray hands and feet.
The irony is that the bronzes we have today survived mostly because of disaster, such as volcanic eruptions and landslides. Greed also saved a few, since statues being transported as booty or commercial merchandise were sometimes submerged during shipwrecks. Just in the last 15 years, a handful of significant bronzes have been discovered at the bottom of the sea and thanks to the vigilance of various authorities, have not been allowed to disappear via the black market into private collections but have been saved for the public.
Today ancient bronze sculptures are various shades of green and gray, due to oxidation. But when first made they would have been a shiny, reflective brown, like tan skin in the Mediterranean sun. Bronze allows for an play between light and shadow that must have been a delight to see when the sculptures were originally displayed in public. Eyes were also realistically inset which comes as a shock to those accustomed to the marble sculpture – which would also have been painted, something that we are also not accustomed to. But there was no need to paint bronze. The metal provided all the coloring needed to create a living, breathing figure.
Because of their rarity, Hellenistic bronze sculptures are most often displayed in museums as isolated masterpieces. This exhibition, the largest of its kind ever staged, is the first to present these works in their larger contexts. When viewed in proximity to one another, the variety of styles and techniques employed by ancient sculptors is emphasized to greater effect, as are the varying functions and histories of the sculptures. Bronze was a material well suited to reproduction, and the exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity to see objects of the same type, and even from the same workshop, together for the first time since their ancient creation. Life flows around the groupings in the show; the aging, battered Greek boxer is paired with the the life-size bronze statue of a victorious young athlete astride a pedestal, an impossibly beautiful Apollo with the sad features of an elderly poet, the harsh face and intense eyes of Seuthes III (one of Alexander’s successors) with an image of the immortal Alexander, always young, always beautiful.
The Hellenistic period saw the end of Athenian hegemony in the Mediterranean and the spread of Greek culture across most of the known Western world. Through this dispersion of Greek culture, the old sculptural standards of majestic, impenetrable beauty change to work that was more personal, more human, more compassionate and yet, still strikingly beautiful. Go and see if you can. Greek sculpture still dazzles across two millennia and makes it very clear why the rediscovery of Greek art inspired the Renaissance and art for the next 500 years.
“Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” is on view to November 1, 2015, at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center. The exhibition was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.