Greek Bronzes and the Rise of Artistic Realism: Power and Pathos Exhibition

What rare Hellenistic statues tell us about the ancient world and 21st-century America.


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"The Hellenistic is the age where we get vivid portraiture, realistic expressions, and images of people where we can almost look past their faces…and think we see into their souls," explains Kenneth Lapatin, curator of the landmark exhibition Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World. "This is really the art of portraiture being born in this period."

The once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, which features a quarter of the surviving bronze statues dating from the fourth century BC to the first century AD, makes its final stop at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art after garnering rave reviews during its time in Florence and Los Angeles. "This show is an extraordinary gathering of about 50 ancient bronze sculptures which is more than have ever been brought together in one place at one time in the modern period, and more than we will probably have ever again in a long long time," says Lapatin.

The Hellenistic period, which began after the death of Alexander the Great, was a tumultuous time for Greek citizens. "Politically, individuals lost power. There were no longer democracies functioning, controlling their own city's life at Athens or Sparta," Lapatin explains. "People seemed to have turned inward–to philosophy, others to religion, but also to art. [The Greeks made] statues of themselves, their family members, and those they wish to honor that really focused on individual accomplishments, whether it be in rhetoric, in philanthropy, in athletics, or some other area."

At the time Greek art and culture were spreading across the Mediterranean, artists of the Hellenistic age were shifting from the cold idealized figures of the Greek Classical period to unprecedented realistic representations of the human form. Bronze, a medium ideal for achieving the high degree of precision and detail sculptors desired, both contributed to the artistic development of the time as well as the scarcity of these works today. Unlike marble, bronze statues were later melted down to create coins, weapons, hinges, and other items. A great many of the pieces that have survived were discovered in ancient shipwrecks, a bi-product of the period's flourishing art market.

"In antiquity bronze statues were quite ubiquitous. In public squares, in sanctuaries, in places like this. You were surrounded by them," says co-curator Jens M. Daehner.  "The exhibition gives an opportunity to maybe capture some of that."

Power and Pathos runs until March 20, 2016.

Shot and produced by Meredith Bragg.

Approximately 3 minutes.

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