Ancient bronzes come to life at the National Gallery of Art in DC
Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World
December 13, 2015–March 20, 2016
National Gallery of Art
In 1964, Italian fishermen off the coast of the Adriatic Sea pulled out of international waters a nearly complete, life-size ancient bronze statue of an athlete. Standing with his weight on his right leg, the nude athlete reaches with his right arm toward the wreath on his head. Victorious in his competition, he will take off his crown and dedicate it to the gods.
“The round face, with wide-set eyes, small nose, motionless cheeks, and petite, pointed chin appears somewhat vacuous,” writes Jens M. Daehner of the Victorious Athlete. “The face subtly conveys a state of exhaustion, a situational realism oddly conditioned by the idealized rendering of the rather generic features.”1
This rare bronze statue is one of about 50 sculptures featured in Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Showcasing bronze statues from the Hellenistic-period (fourth–first centuries B.C.E.) Mediterranean region, Power and Pathos is an unprecedented international exhibition organized with the cooperation of major archaeological museums in 10 countries, including Greece, Italy, Spain and the United States.2 Before traveling to the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition was featured at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA.
During the Hellenistic period—beginning in 323 B.C.E. after the death of Alexander the Great, whose conquests spread Greek culture farther than it had ever been—sculptors began to portray a realism of the human form not seen before in the history of Greek art. Hellenistic sculptors depicted what was not “beautiful”—wrinkles, potbellies, bruises. Moving beyond the psychological blankness that characterized sculpture in the preceding Classical period, sculptors sought to express the emotional state of the subject in order to evoke a response from the viewer; this technique is encapsulated in the Greek concept of pathos (“lived,” “experience”). Because of its composition and tensile strength, bronze offered sculptors the ability to depict astonishingly fine details and to form extreme poses that could not be achieved in marble.
“How the ancients viewed or thought about these works is difficult—if not impossible—to know,” explained Kim J. Hartswick, art historian and Academic Director at City University of New York, to Bible History Daily. “But the sculptures’ popularity speaks to a receptive audience that in the Hellenistic Age was more and more, as it were, self-centered and perhaps even more self-reflective.”
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That these Hellenistic bronzes have survived over two millennia is mostly by chance. Bronze was commonly melted down and reused, such that fewer than 200 bronzes statues from the Hellenistic period exist today. Many of the sculptures were recovered from the bottom of the sea—casualties of shipwrecks or scuffles at sea. Others were unintentionally preserved in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E.
“In order to be found, they first had to be lost,” said National Gallery of Art Director Earl A. Powell III at a press preview of the exhibit.
Upon entering Power and Pathos at the National Gallery of Art, visitors are greeted by the life-size Victorious Athlete standing in front of a photomural of the ancient Greek sanctuary of Olympia, where the statue may have originally stood. The exhibit is divided into seven sections: Introduction: The Rarity of Bronzes, Alexander and His Successors, Rulers and Citizens/Likeness and Expression, Bodies Real and Ideal, Apoxyomenos and the Art of Replication, Images of the Divine, and Styles of the Past/Roman Collectors and Greek Art. Celebrating the physical power and emotional intensity of Hellenistic bronzes, the exhibit features statues, statuettes, busts and herms portraying gods, queens, athletes and everyday people.
One piece noticeably missing from the National Gallery of Art exhibit is the so-called Terme Boxer, a dramatic, fully preserved, over-life-size statue of an aged and exhausted boxer that had appeared in the Florence and Los Angeles legs of the Power and Pathos tour. Appearing only at the National Gallery, however, is a delightful life-size statue from Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri of a boy runner in action: Leaning far forward, with weight on his left foot and his right arm reaching out, he lunges at the viewer.
While it is a shame that the Terme Boxer, which had been on loan from the Museo Nazionale Romano—Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, did not make it to DC, Power and Pathos is nonetheless a breathtaking assemblage of magnificent bronzes that can’t be missed. The exhibit closes at the National Gallery of Art on March 20, 2016.
1. Jens M. Daehner, “Statue of an Athlete (The Getty Bronze),” in Jens M. Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin, eds., Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015), p. 210.
2. Power and Pathos is curated by Jens M. Daehner and Kenneth S. Lapatin, associate curators of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
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