Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
December 13, 2015 – March 20, 2016
Reviewed by Ed Voves
In 1845, Edgar Allen Poe revised a poem written a decade, entitled To Helen. Poe evoked the beauty of Helen of Troy. He also created a haunting image of the lost civilizations upon which the shared culture of Europe and America was founded:
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, Thy Naiad airs have brought me home To the glory that was Greece, And the grandeur that was Rome.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. recently opened a brilliant exhibition of ancient statues which recalls the bygone "glory" and "grandeur" which Poe recalled so memorably. But there is a twist to Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World. The word Hellenistic is a key to the riddle.
Unknown Artist, Medallion with Athena and Medusa, 200–150 B.C.
Power and Pathos displays some fifty bronze statues from the age following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Greek culture spread all over the Mediterranean world during this period. Marching armies, trade and colonies carried Greek ways of life and thought as far as India to the east and westward to the seven hills of Rome, at that point a minor political state with few pretensions to grandeur.
The civilization of Greece or Hellas had grandeur to spare - sometimes at sword's point.
Hellenistic means "relating to the Hellenists." Not all of these exponents of Greek culture were Greeks. Power and Pathos displays examples of Greek-styled art from Italy, North African and Georgia in the Caucasus. For the first time in world history, a global style of art, entitled "Hellenistic," was embraced in many lands and by many different peoples.
Amazingly, the Hellenistic period is one of the most unappreciated epochs of ancient times. To Poe and his Victorian contemporaries, the Athens of Pericles and Socrates, during the fifth century BC, was the age of "the glory that was Greece." The tumultuous era of Cicero and Caesar four hundred years later held center stage in the popular memories of Rome.
One of the reasons why the Hellenistic period is not better known may be that the supreme art form of that era, bronze statuary, has largely been lost. Of the thousands of bronze statues from Hellenistic times, a mere handful have survived.
Power and Pathos is dedicated to uniting many of the remaining bronze statues from the Hellenistic age in a single exhibit for study and appreciation. This exhibition, largely organized by curators of the Getty Museum in California, enables us for the first time to grasp the scale of Hellenistic achievement in a way that simply could not be done by looking at these art works in isolation.
Along with these rare bronze survivors, Power and Pathos displays a battered stone pedestal upon which a lost statue once stood. The pedestal is inscribed with the name of Lysippos of Sikyon (c. 390–305 BC). Lysippos, the great sculptor favored by Alexander the Great, was credited in ancient times with creating 1,500 bronze works of art.
Not one of the bronze sculptures of Lysippos has survived. Perhaps one of his works will be discovered by deep sea divers, as the celebrated Riace bronzes were found in 1972 off the coast of Italy. But the vast number of ancient bronzes were melted down long ago, the metal of these masterpieces being recycled into cheap coinage or implements of war.
The "pathos" of Power and Pathos does not refer to the tragic loss of so much great art. Rather, it underscores the great psychological revolution of the Hellenistic age.
Individuality and the underlying emotional depths of the human character came to dominate bronze portraiture in the Hellenistic age. Alexander's achievements gave a massive impetus to the idea that human beings were able to take charge of their own lives.
The bronze statues of the post-Alexander period were primarily depictions of real people. Before the extraordinary career of Alexander, Greek statues were principally idealized representations of the gods, albeit in human form. Classically featured portraits of gods and people continued to be made after Alexander's death, but with a degree of naturalism that is evident in many of the works of art in Power and Pathos.
Unknown Artist, Artemis with Deer, 1st Century B.C.- 1st Century AD
Why did this tremendous shift in consciousness and naturalism take place? In his pioneering reappraisal of the Hellenistic era, From Alexander to Cleopatra (1982), Michael Grant wrote:
Reality was one keynote of the time... just as the scientists were making new efforts to explain what happens in the universe, so writers and artists wanted to show life as it is. And to show life as it is meant showing the individual as he or she is: this was the age, the first age, of the recognition, development and delineating of the individual person.
Grant continued his analysis to show that a "cult of personality," fostered by government decrees, spurred the creation of many of these individualized bronze portraits. Though the study of psychology may ultimately have profited, the short-term effect was bloodshed and war.
Many of the Hellenistic bronze statues depicted the generals on Alexander's staff. These warlords were called the Diadochi or "successors". After Alexander's early death in 323, they engaged in a series of "dog-eat-dog" military campaigns to divide up the vast empire. It was important to the various Diadochi like Ptolmey I, who seized control of Egypt, or Antiochus III, who built a big power base in the Middle East, that their portraits show them as strong, yet caring individuals.
One of the fascinating conventions of Hellenistic bronze sculpture was the range of expressiveness of these portraits. In an age of anxiety, it was not enough to be strong. A ruler needed to be shown as caring but also as care-worn. Awareness, tension, even a hint of apprehensiveness, were important attributes to be included in the modeling of these portraits.
Unknown Artist, Portrait of a Man, About 100 B.C.
We should not project too much into the character of this unknown individual with his wrinkled brow. He was likely a local politician or a Roman official on the island of Delos. Located in the Aegean Sea, Delos was the chief slave-trading center of the later (Roman-dominated) part of the Hellenistic era. It was the site of untold suffering. The empathy we see in those marble eyes was not likely to have been shown to the victims of war on sale in the market place of Delos.
Propaganda thus became a key component in the creation of these wonderful bronzes. This is especially true, since many of these statues were commissioned by civic groups to honor the "great" for a whole range of successes, from war to athletic victories.
The portrait head used as the introductory image to this review is a case in point. It is believed to depict a Roman general, Quintus Fufius Calenus, an ally of Julius Caesar who died in 40 BC. Was Calenus such a benign Imperial proconsul that the Greek citizens of Megara erected a statue in his honor? Or were they grateful that he exacted less tribute and loot from Megara than the Romans usually did?
The creation of this striking work (which of course was originally attached to a now lost body) was likely based on a careful calculus of motives. But the difficulties encountered by historians in distinguishing between the real and imagined traits of ancient leaders based on these bronze portraits are enormous.
Unknown Artist, Portrait of a Ruler, (Demetrius the Besieger?) 310–290 B.C.
These bronze portraits, then, were created as acts of homage to the "movers and shakers" of the era. Fortunately, Hellenistic art also includes wonderful representations of women from the dynasties who ruled over the divided parts of Alexander's domain.
Particularly in Egypt under Ptolemy and his successors, Greek women had a degree of influence and freedom far in excess to the circumscribed lives of their grandmothers during the golden age of Athens.
Unknown Artist, Head of a Woman (Arsinoë II?), About 300–270 B.C.
The striking portrait of the Greek queen of Egypt, Arsinoë II (316 BC -270 BC), conveys the beauty and the power of one of the most influential people of the Hellenistic era. This remarkable bronze head (again detached from its body) also evokes the most famous Hellenistic queen of all, Cleopatra (69 BC-30 BC), whose celebrated reign closed out the last vestiges of Greek autonomy before Caesar Augustus marched in and turned Egypt into the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.
Power and Pathos also displays several revealing depictions of adolescent youths and even young children. The latter age-group appears in the guise of Sleeping Eros.
Unknown Artist, Sleeping Eros, 300–100 B.C.
This uncanny representation of a sleeping infant has a degree of realism that the angel wings cannot disguise. Sleeping Eros is a beloved work, well-known to the visitors to the Metropolitan Museum's Greek and Roman galleries. Yet its sensational modeling never had the effect on me at that the Met to the degree I felt, seeing it among the other Hellenistic bronzes of Power and Pathos.
The ability to study in Hellenistic art in detail, contrasting these wondrous bronzes from antiquity, is best exemplified by several full figure statues of adolescent boys.
Unknown Artist, Boy Runner, 1st Century B.C.- 1st century AD
Boy Runner, found in 1754 during the initial excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii, is a study of poetry in motion.
Unknown Artist, Portrait Statue of an Aristocratic Boy, 27 BC-AD 14
The nude athlete might well be the same youth as the one depicted in the Portrait Statue of an Aristocratic Boy. Naked to the waste, a handsome young man posed with the thoughtful eloquence of a student of philosophy. Here we see the classical mind-body ideals of Greco-Roman civilization embodied to almost impossible degrees of physical perfection.
Life is not perfect.
A third statue of a youth, found on Crete, almost certainly is a memorial to a young aristocrat from that island. He clutches his cloak about him sheathing his body in the clothing he wore in life, but which now serve as a kind of shroud. The superb handling of his body beneath his cloak, of a type known as a himation, is worthy of comparison with Auguste Rodin's Monument to Balzac.
Rodin's controversial tribute to the great poet, Honoré de Balzac, was first presented (and rejected by the commissioning group) as a plaster model in 1898. Rodin's Monument to Balzac was not cast as a bronze statue until 1939, over twenty years after his death.
The relevance here a Rodin's experience with his Balzac to the Portrait of a Boy from Crete is that both statues flew in the face of accepted norms. Statues in Europe around 1900 were not supposed to look like Rodin's Monument to Balzac. We don't have any documentation at all about the "Boy from Crete" but all the canons of Greek art were broken or ignored in the creation of this stunning work of art.
Unknown Artist, Portrait of a Boy, 100–50 B.C.
The Greeks gloried in the male nude. The melancholy boy clutches his himation to himself with desperate will-power. Greek portraits were supposed to present images of serene self-control. The face of the "Boy from Crete" is anguished and despondent. Life has been snatched from him all too early and philosophy proved to be of no consolation.
The "pathos" of the Hellenistic period led increasingly to cynicism and despair. This down-beat outlook imposed severe limitations on the the sense of individualism which Michael Grant cogently described in From Alexander to Cleopatra.
Grant noted that the Hellenistic era witnessed the rise of Tyche, the spirit of chance or luck. Everyone hoped that the happy face of Tyche - Agathe Tyche - would smile upon them. But as the endless, uncivil wars of the Diadochi raged-on, most people felt they "were adrift in an uncaring universe, and that everything was hazardous, beyond human control or understanding or prediction."
The Hellenistic world, and later the Roman Empire as well, were gripped, as Grant wrote, "by an unreasonable, dismal, desperate conviction that everything in the world was under the total control of Tyche."
This is the way that I think that the "Boy from Crete" should be interpreted. This powerful, disturbing work of art is a potent symbol of the limitations of the "glory" and "grandeur" of Greece and Rome. As belief waned in the gods of Olympus, people confronted the harsh realities of life and death without spiritual reassurance of any sort.
In the place of Tyche would come a widespread reliance on mystery religions and redeemer cults from Egypt and the Middle East. These would transform the emotional landscape of late antiquity.
Eventually, the image of another tortured young man would take center stage in Western art. Unlike the "Boy from Crete" huddled beneath his cloak, this young man would stretch forth his arms to save the world.
The oldest known depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, circa 420-430 AD. One of the Maskell Passion Ivories in the British Museum, it does not appear in Power and Pathos.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and the British Museum, London
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Portrait of a Man, 50- 25 BC, Bronze, copper, and marble, overall size: 32 × 22 × 22 cm (12 5/8 × 8 11/16 × 8 11/16 in.,) height of head: 22.5 cm (8 7/8 in.) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Medallion with Athena and Medusa, 200–150 B.C.
Bronze and glass, H 27.2 cm; W 27.1 cm; D 19 cm. The Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, 17540
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Artemis with Deer, 100 BC- AD 100, Bronze, height: 48 3/4 in. (123.8 cm) Private Collection Photograph Courtesy of Sotheby's, Inc. © 2015
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Portrait of a Man, About 100 BC, Bronze, copper, glass, and stone, H 32.5 cm; W 22 cm; D 22 cm The Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs. The National Archaeological Museum, Athens, inv. X 14612
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Portrait of a Ruler, (Demetrius the Besieger?) 310–290 B.C., Bronze, H 45 cm; W 35 cm; D 39 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, E-99
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Head of a Woman (Arsinoë II?) About 300–270 BC, Bronze, H 25.5 cm The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Catharine Page Perkins Fund, 96.712
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Sleeping Eros, 300- 100 BC, Bronze (with a modern marble base) overall size: 41.9 × 85.2 × 35.6 cm (16 1/2 × 33 9/16 × 14 in.) height: 45.7 cm (18 in.) weight: 275 lb (124.7 kg) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1943
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Boy Runner, 100 BC- 1st century AD, Bronze, stone, and bone, overall: 118 x 107 x 46 cm (46 7/16 x 42 1/8 x 18 1/8 in.) The National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy (MANN) © Archivio dell'arte, Luciano Pedicini
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Portrait of a Boy, 100-50 BC, Bronze and copper, overall size: 140 × 57 × 45.1 cm (55 1/8 × 22 7/16 × 17 3/4 in.) height of the head: 23 cm (9 1/16 in.) height of the base: 4.5 cm (1 3/4 in.) weight: 200 lb. Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education, and Religious Affairs. The Archaeological Museum, Heraklion
Unknown Artist, Crucifixion, Panel of Maskell Passion Ivories, Circa 420-430 AD, Carved Ivory, H: 75 mm W: 98 mm W: 106 grams, British Museum, 1856,0623.5