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Power, pathos, and a punch-drunk boxer: Meet the bronze people at The Getty Center

Victorious Athlete (left), 300-100 B.C. (The J. Paul Getty Museum); Weary Herakles, A.D. 1-100. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Abruzzo Villa Frigerj); Seated Boxer, 300-200 B.C. (Museo Nazionale Romano—Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome).
Victorious Athlete (left), 300-100 B.C. (The J. Paul Getty Museum); Weary Herakles, A.D. 1-100. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Abruzzo Villa Frigerj); Seated Boxer, 300-200 B.C. (Museo Nazionale Romano—Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome).
The Getty Museum

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"They're usually shown in splendid isolation. But in antiquity, they were much more common, and they populated city squares, sanctuaries, they spoke to each other, people could interact with them. And our idea was, why don't we bring them together, and show them together? Many of these statues haven't seen each other since they left the workshop." -- Getty curator Ken Lapatin

Not too long before Bette Midler and her young pals discovered the place, I’d sweat off many an overindulgent lunch at New York’s famed Luxor steam baths. Most of the men there were bulging, sagging and ancient … but one stood out.

He was former welterweight contender named Irv. He had a perfect boxer physique, but he’d slowed to the point where getting up and sitting down were a bit problematic. 

While other bathers dozed torpid under their sheets in the steam room, Irv held court on the Sweet Science of boxing to his audience of obese senior accountants and jewelry merchants. “Keep your fists up, keep moving, and don’t get hit.” ... Advice he hadn’t taken a couple of times, according to his broken nose and busted left cheek.

(Marc Haefele's Irv:  “The Terme Boxer” (detail). Photo © Vanni Archive / Art Resource, NY)

Imagine my surprise when Irv turned up at the Getty Center the other day, complete with broken nose and busted cheek … and stark naked in a full beard. But this Irv was 2,000 years old, in blackened bronze instead of steam bath pink. And he was a statue. Still, I wanted to say, “Irv, how you been all these years?”
You want to ask that of most of the dozens of Bronze people inhabiting the Getty Center’s exhibition hall in "Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World," on display through October. They’re from what you might well call the Golden Age of Bronze.

Never again in human history would this metal sculpture be so superbly practiced over such a wide area, from present day Yemen to what is now Portugal. They’re all from the Hellenistic period—spanning from Alexander the Great in about 330 BC to the fall of Cleopatra in 31 BC. That’s the long period when Greece declined from being a military to a cultural power, a power of art and learning, exporting painting and poetry, literature, drama and, yes, sculpture all over the known and even the so-called unknown worlds — through India to what is now Pakistan.
How many bronze Irvs and Irmas there were then no one knows. Maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. They lined the streets of Mediterranean cities and the ports of the Arabian Sea. The conquering Romans bought them by the shipload. They were the way in which ancient urban culture celebrated itself — representing its heroes, gods and goddesses, leaders and tradesmen, children and even animals, everywhere there was public and even private space. Most of these bronzes were melted down for coins and cooking pots, or otherwise destroyed, and now scarcely 200 are known to survive. Fully fifty of these are now at the Getty Center.
We tend to idealize the sculpture of Greece’s great era, from 500-350 BC. But these works were themselves idealizations, not based on reality. It was the Hellenistic Era that followed that invented portraiture: its images looked like actual people, with human expressions, peculiarities, even flaws. Like Irv the Boxer’s broken nose.
The statues that venerate leaders, heroes and gods — particularly the athletes called apoxymenos — the naked men with the perfect hair — have ordinary, if handsome, faces. But some of the other faces, especially those whose glass and jeweled simulated eyes survive, are so alive that they’re unnerving to look at. Because they stare back at you with expressions that range from the totally involved to the utterly deranged. Take that head of a man from Delos, for instance, who seems astonished just to see you.

(Portrait of a Man, 300-200 B.C., bronze, copper, glass, and stone. Image © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports/Archaeological Receipts Fund)
These statues at the Getty stir stories in the viewers’ mind. Who’s the naked boy riding the lion? That spoiled-looking teenager? Why does that armored Minerva seem to be smiling at some secret?
And how can you be sharing the emotions of someone gone from the earth for over 2,000 years? Ah, but you do.

The greatness of most of these pieces is their molding into forever the rages, delights, and puzzlements of a period so far gone from us. And yet as close as Irv the punch-drunk boxer.

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, is at the Getty Center through November 1, 2015. Listen to the bonus audio to hear John Rabe's interview with the Getty Museum curator Kenneth Lapatin, who curated the show with colleague Jens Daehner.