Washington Post for Ancient Greece
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Washington Post for Ancient Greece

Washington Post makes a tribute to Ancient Greece and the latest exhibition in the The National Gallery of Art’s with an article entitled “Face-to-face with ancient Greece: The National Gallery of Art’s ‘Power and Pathos’”.

More than 2,000 years ago, Greek artists created bronze sculptures that are as beautiful and expressive as anything made before or since. And they were prolific, molding tens of thousands of gleaming likenesses of civic leaders, poets, gods and heroes. Only about 200 remain today, which makes the latest exhibit at the National Gallery of Art all the more odds-defying. One quarter of the survivors are on view as part of “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World,” through March 20.

“We’ve brought together as many large-scale bronze sculptures as have ever been brought together before, and the ones we’ve chosen are of the highest order,” says Jens M. Daehner, an antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA, who co-curated the exhibit with the Getty’s Kenneth Lapatin. The exhibit arrives in D.C. after stops in Florence, Italy, and Los Angeles.

“Power and Pathos” includes two nearly identical pieces never before seen side by side, the so-called Herms of Dionysos. One of the sculptures was salvaged from the wreckage of an ancient ship near Tunisia in 1907. The other appeared in a Swiss art market in 1971 with no indication as to where it had been discovered.

The herms consist of long rectangular columns topped with renderings of the head of Dionysos, the god of wine. Statues of this type — named after the messenger god Hermes — were placed around borders of cities as protection.

“Their similarity to Pez dispensers is, I think, coincidental,” Lapatin says.

A chemical analysis of the two herms concluded that they originate from the same workshop, perhaps even from the same batch of metal. Though few duplicates like these remain today, ancient Greek artisans frequently reused molds and made multiple copies of the same sculpture, Lapatin says. Eagle-eyed visitors can play “spot the difference” with the herms.

“The one from Tunisia has more detail in it, and it’s signed by the artist,” Lapatin says. “Maybe that’s the more expensive version — like when you see two models of the same car, but one is upgraded with leather seats and a sunroof.”
In ancient Greece, a life-size bronze sculpture would have cost about 3,000 drachmas — the equivalent of two years’ salary for a rich citizen. These likenesses were often erected by cities to honor civic leaders and rulers, though poets and athletes were also commonly depicted.

“These images we have are pretty much of the ancient Greek’s 1 percent,” Lapatin says.

None of the bronze works on display capture a person smiling, unless you count the satyr with a creepy grin. Rather, the sculptures tend to portray people in a moment of quiet reflection. One of the most famous Greek sculptures is colloquially known as “Worried Man From Delos” because of the subject’s rather anxious look. The sculptor, however, probably just meant to portray the man’s civic devotion.

“The face is showing what he’s being honored for — the zeal, attention, care and energy he’s expended on behalf of his fellow citizens,” Daehner says.

Even if we don’t interpret the Delos man’s emotions as his fellow citizens would have, the sculpture’s expressive face exemplifies why we find these masterpieces so arresting.

“The vivid way they portrayed emotions collapses time,” Lapatin says. “These are not only exquisite works of art, they are almost alive.”

When you look at an ancient Greek sculpture, remember that it’s probably been through a lot. These artifacts were damaged in shipwrecks, buried by volcanic ash or even marred by art lovers from eras past. As you imagine what these bronzes might have looked like 2,000 years ago, don’t forget:

They used to be shiny. Centuries of tarnish have given these sculptures a dark, mottled finish. When they were first minted, they approximated the color of tan Mediterranean skin. To heighten realism, sculptors used copper inlays to create nipples and lips.

The faces had eyes. Over time, most of the sculptures lost their lifelike eyes, which were made of glass and colored stone and fringed with delicate bronze eyelashes.

The heads had bodies. For ancient Greeks, a portrait wouldn’t have been complete unless it included your torso and toes. (Head-topped columns known as herms were a notable exception.) “They didn’t have feel the same kind of mind-body separation we have in the Judeo-Christian tradition,” co-curator Kenneth Lapatin says.