Vestiges of an ancient Greek art form, preserved by catastrophe

January 25, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Fewer than 200 bronze sculptures from the Hellenistic era -- a period that began more than 2,000 years ago -- survive today. About a quarter of those are gathered in an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art called "Power and Pathos," which offers a view into the spread of ancient Greek culture around the world, and the rise of a new art form. Jeffrey Brown reports.


WASHINGTON — They are only with us now because once they were thought to have been lost forever.

While marble statues are most popularly associated with the Classical Age, in the Hellenistic Period — between Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C. and the rise of Rome in 31 B.C. — bronze was the premiere sculptural form.

Yet because of the nature of the medium — an alloy comprising copper, tin, aluminum and other metals — most of those works were melted down through the ages to produce helmets, shields, hinges and a host of other objects needed at the time.

“The ones that we don’t have and we haven’t found are gone forever because they were melted down. And that’s the vast majority, thousands and thousands,” said Kenneth Lapatin, co-creator of the exhibit “Power and Pathos,” which originated at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

It’s now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, showcasing some 50 bronzes once lost in fires, shipwrecks, volcanoes and earthquakes, and includes the statue base of one of the greatest bronze sculptors, Lysippos, the favorite of Alexander the Great.

“He was the Michelangelo of the period. We know from ancient writers that he made 1,500 statues. Not a single one survives, and that stone base is the closest we can get to his work,” Lapatin said.

Read the full transcript of this segment below:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: an exhibition bring together ancient sculptures once thought lost forever.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: He stands in sandals and robe, his face somewhere between sober and sad. Across more than 2,000 years, we can see the care taken by the unknown artist in capturing the expression, and the details that give life to this and some 50 other sculptures.

KENNETH LAPATIN, J. Paul Getty Museum: It’s an incredible paradox that everything in this exhibition survives through catastrophe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Catastrophe such as…

KENNETH LAPATIN: Earthquake, fire, shipwreck, volcano, city sacked. And we found them because they were buried, and thus weren’t melted down.

JEFFREY BROWN: They are made of bronze, a metal alloy that could be and was reused for everything from weapons to hinges.

KENNETH LAPATIN: The ones that we don’t have and we haven’t found are gone forever, because they were melted down. And that’s the vast majority, thousands and thousands.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kenneth Lapatin is co-curator with Jens Daehner of the exhibition Power and Pathos, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the last leg of a tour that began at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Unliked carved marble, which lasted longer and less were more familiar with, these sculptures were made from molds. The artist began with soft wax, which allowed for detailed styling and was used to make a clay mold. Once fired, it was filled with molten bronze, which hardened into the sculpture.

KENNETH LAPATIN: You see the marbling of the face, the corrugated brow, the finely incised eyebrows, the soft flesh, the broken nose, the furrows.

Here in the Hellenistic period, we have for the first time portraiture as we represent it, that really represents an individual.

JEFFREY BROWN: Portraiture the way we think of it now.


JEFFREY BROWN: As sort of capturing some individual.

KENNETH LAPATIN: Right, and not only their physical, external aspect, but also something of their internal thought.

And this is really about art of the sculptor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, fewer than 200 bronze sculptures survive. About a quarter of them are gathered here.

The exhibition includes the base of one missing statue, signed by its famous artist.

KENNETH LAPATIN: The statue base has the name of Lysippus, the favorite sculpture of Alexander the Great, who was more prolific than anyone. He’s the Michelangelo of the period.

We know from ancient writers that he made 1,500 statues. Not a single one survives. And that stone base is the closest we can get to his work.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was Alexander who conquered much of the known world, from his home in Macedonia to Northern India, spreading Greek culture along the way. The period following his death became known as the Hellenistic period, lasting roughly from 323 B.C. to the rise of Rome in 31 B.C.

KENNETH LAPATIN: Cultures are interacting, Greeks and Persians, Romans and Etruscans. They’re all sailing around the Mediterranean, interacting with each other and trading.

Ten percent of the works in the show, more like 20 percent actually, were found in shipwrecks. And that’s because the works of art were traveling at the end of this period.

JEFFREY BROWN: They were traveling for trade or…

KENNETH LAPATIN: Trade, but also looting. They are changing forms. The Romans begin to collect old masters. It is in this period, at the end, that Rome conquers Greece.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Rome is collecting old masters. This is a period where Rome is rising and they’re looking to Greece as their old masters, the way we would look at the Renaissance.

KENNETH LAPATIN: Exactly, exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And these old masters created a new look for sculpture, Eros, the god of love, as a sleeping child, a statue of a man, probably a prominent Roman general, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ted Kennedy. And then there is the boy runner.

CAROL MATTUSCH, George Mason University: You should think of him as being shiny, copper, brassy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Originally.



George Mason University art historian Carol Mattusch has studied and written widely on the bronze sculptures.

CAROL MATTUSCH: He was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., which also preserved him in this wonderful condition, along with a companion who looks just like this statue, both in the same garden.

We can conclude they come from the same workshop.

JEFFREY BROWN: This idea of the workshop, I mean, we think of things being mass-produced, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Is that a fair analogy, that these could have been, in a sense, mass-produced?

CAROL MATTUSCH: I guess the best way to describe them is that they were mass-produced or produced in editions. And so the question is, are they really originals, when we know there are so many of them?

We thought so, until we started finding two or three of the same things made in bronze.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So, do we just not worry about what is original and what is a so-called copy anymore? How do you think about it?

CAROL MATTUSCH: I think that it’s best to avoid the term original and to use the word model.

There is a wish today for the original, but, in the case of bronzes, all that we have is proof of repeat production. The whole nature of the medium is reproduction. Our difficulty is, so few have survived. When you see 50 bronzes together in one exhibition, this has never happened before, never will again. There has never been so many bronzes face to face with one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibition lasts until March 20, and then these works return to their homes around the world.

From the National Gallery of Art in Washington, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”