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Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World

Edited by Jens M. Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin. Pp. 367, figs. 164. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2015. $65. ISBN 978-1-60606-439-9 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume is both a study of Hellenistic bronze sculpture and a catalogue of an exhibition that traveled from Florence to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., between the summers of 2015 and 2016. As the editors of the book (also curators of the exhibition) state, the purpose of the exhibition was to bring together (for the first time) enough bronze sculpture of the highest quality and comparable monumentality from a wide enough geographical and temporal range to begin to deconstruct the aura of specialness and “splendid isolation” that follows bronze. They then sought to investigate the craft, mechanics, science, purposes, outcomes, successes, failures, industry, and audience of bronze sculpture in one part of the ancient world (21–2). The exhibition, scholarly collaborations, and resulting volume were expensive and logistically complicated (see 13–14), and the results are impressive both for their curatorial resolve and intellectual pursuit.

The 11 essays, 55 catalogue entries, and appendix are nearly all written by experts in the field. Each stands on its own, and, with only a few exceptions, brings new light—and sometimes challenging new ideas—to a particular area of scholarship. Although a nice volume for the museumgoer, with some accessible essays and 164 color illustrations that allow the objects to truly sing, this is no introduction; for one who wants to get into the meat of it, expertise is required. The book begins with the editors’ phenomenological interrogation of the potential ubiquity of these sculptures, and in the essays, the prized place of bronze in modernity is reimagined through investigations of the mundane use of some works, the technical processes of creating and studying large-scale bronze, the ability of artists and bronzeworkers to recreate and perhaps even repeat sculpture, and the functional and symbolic purpose (rather than prestige) of bronze as a material. The result is a thematic volume that is purposefully unsystematic (26) and is filled with contributions that ask questions across disciplines.

This is a review of the book, but it must be said that, having seen these objects in two venues, the exhibition was eye-opening. Many of these bronzes are famous, rarely travel, and are hard to reach. Their abundance in one place was at first odd, even overwhelming, but it soon became normal; their ubiquity in antiquity registered with this viewer, and one could imagine life in a world populated by bronze art. On the other side of both exhibition and book, one is left with a sense of these works as the expensive, hard-wrought products of an artistic and cultural shift that stretched from Arabia to Italy over 300 years of political exigencies and philosophical revolution. One is also left seeing how much work remains to be done.

Stewart opens part 1 of the volume with an update of two previously published essays; his assessment of bronze in the Greek imagination and in the spheres of aesthetics and labor vivifies the world of the Hellenistic artist-craftsman. Some may disagree with his use of evidence from disconnected periods and places, but the purpose of this essay is to force the reader to think about the life of bronzework. Adornato harnesses the fragments of Poseidippos of Pella to examine alitheia/veritas and the reciprocal means by which artists, poets, subjects, and viewers experienced and reflected on art, thereby shifting individual, rather than universal, canons of truth. His is a difficult task, since there are so few sources; but again the point seems to be to challenge accepted, progressive linearity. Smith’s essay speaks to Adornato’s and Stewart’s, with the benefit of a well-documented single subject: honorific portraiture. The tighter body of evidence allows Smith to subtly address questions of function, viewership, communication, and the phenomenology of experience in the crafting of and interaction with bronze sculpture.

Canepa’s essay is a crash course in the styles, iconographies, material history, and cultural crosscurrents of the Hellenistic East. In revealing the breadth of the exhibition, his essay complicates much of the scholarship on Hellenistic art, which still often anticipates a Greek-focused artist, subject, or purpose. Koutsouflakis and Simosi provide a straightforward assessment of how archaeological context—even in underwater salvage expeditions—allows for far better understanding of objects than those purchased without context through the art market. Hemingway’s chapter, “Contexts of Discovery,” enumerates and describes several objects and contexts but misses the opportunity to explore how these contexts transform knowledge of art and the past in a manner that is impossible with objects divorced from archaeology.

With a tight focus on the craft of bronzework, Hallett’s essay questions how the analysis of bronze production might reveal purposeful “fakes.” In doing so, he advances the idea of classicizing and archaizing with fresh questions of artists’ intentions and patrons’ desires. Mattusch provides a thorough explanation of the process of recreation and emulation in bronzework, with a persuasive push for seriality. The pairing of her essay with Hallett’s highlights just how fine the line between copying and faking may have been, and, for this reader, frustrates the application of the modern idea of forgery to the study of ancient art. In her essay on polychromy, Descamps-Lequime assesses the various techniques (e.g., mechanics, casting, alloys, inlay, plating) that brought subtle coloring to bronze sculpture and through which bronze was part of an “intensified” message system, a reminder of the aspirations and temporal limits of artistic subtlety. Finally, Giumlia-Mair provides a cautionary chapter, with strong words for empirical scholarship: the body of evidence for scientific comparison on grounded objects is too thin to make broad statements about dating, technological change, and periodization. Her argument is convincing, and most (not all) of the catalogue entries adopt her wisdom.

Overall, the catalogue itself (pt. 2) is solid and often impressive. Generally, entries are investigative rather than authoritative or presentational. Most examine the object, its context (where known), and its situation in the landscape of Hellenistic bronzes and scholarship on them (good examples include cat. nos. 19, 23, 27, 43). The best are able to tie historical, stylistic, formal, metallurgical, chemical, and archaeological evidence together in a compelling explication of a sculpture’s identification, function, state of preservation, and potential meaning (e.g., cat. nos. 9, 10, 18, 26).

One of the strengths of the volume is its insistence on archaeological context. This should be no surprise, given the curators’/editors’ previous publications, which stress that academics and museum professionals confront unprovenanced antiquities, and given the recent, unprecedented project at the Getty to investigate and publish provenance records for all of its antiquities. Generally, contributors to this volume do not shy away from confronting context and the art market, and overall they have selected objects judiciously and treated them frankly (e.g., cat. nos. 11, 46, fig. 7.6; but cf. the cover image, cat. no. 25, and the uncritical use of the Cleveland Apollo). Furthermore, the book opens with a map of findspots, every catalogue entry begins with a provenance summary (which remains extremely rare in exhibition catalogues), and most entries either discuss archaeological context or emphasize the effects of its presence and loss (cf. cat. nos. 3, 10, 11, 18).

The catalogue chapter on replication is a good example, particularly the juxtaposition of catalogue numbers 45 and 46, the herms of Dionysos. Along with the essay by Mattusch, the entries in this chapter present a clear contrast between the information discernable from the object purchased on the art market and the one found in context. Given that chemical analysis of the bronze suggests the herms “were produced at the same time, and in the same workshop, in fact, from the same batch of metal” (285), one is left to wonder how much information we would have about workshops, buyers, tastes, distribution, and networks of trade if the context of the Getty herm—even a secondary context—were known. Coming on the heels of entries on the well-documented Croatian and Ephesian apoxyomenos statues and other versions of that type, the absent information on catalogue number 46 stands in relief. The authors and editors seem to have featured this as a means to promote the acquisition of objects with context and to recognize both the limitations of ungrounded objects (cf. E. Marlowe, Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship, and the History of Roman Art [London 2013]) and the significance of their honest study in collaboration across scholarly fields.

The weight given to context is crucial. As provenance studies have continued to demonstrate, an object’s biography holds the key to its greater historical significance, as well as its place within a shared cultural heritage, which, according to the International Council of Museums, the American Alliance of Museums, and the Association of Art Museum Directors, museums are expected to steward. Overall, when compared with past exhibition catalogues—and even current ones—this marks a real step forward in the foregrounding of archaeology, provenance, and cultural heritage in a major museum exhibition.

John North Hopkins
Department of Art History
Rice University

Book Review of Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, edited by Jens M. Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin

Reviewed by John North Hopkins

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Hopkins

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