In the early 1960s, Italian fisherman found a remarkable bronze sculpture in the depths of the Adriatic Sea. Statue of a Victorious Youth, also referred to as the “Getty Bronze,” is one of the few life-size Greek bronzes to have survived its time, revealing much information about ancient bronze casting. But the bronze also inspires endless questions: Who is the subject? Where did he come from? And where are his feet?
Tim Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum; Charles Ray, Los Angeles-based sculptor; and Anne Wagner, professor emerita of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley, come together to explore some of the questions that surround the mystery of the Getty Bronze.
More to Explore
Statue of a Victorious Youth, 300–100 B.C. artwork information
The Getty Bronze book
The Victorious Youth book
Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World exhibition information
Hinoki, 2007, Charles Ray artwork information
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIM POTTS: For many of us, this is the high point of Greek art. These figures walk and stand and gesture like real bodies. You can imagine these figures coming to life, walking off the pedestal.
CUNO: In this episode I speak with Tim Potts, Director of the Getty Museum, Anne Wagner, Professor emerita of art history at UC Berkeley, and contemporary sculptor Charley Ray about the so-called “Getty Bronze,” a standing bronze sculpture of a young athlete that dates from sometime in the 4th or 3rd century BC and is the signature work in the collection of the Getty Villa.
I met with Tim, Anne, and Charley in a gallery at the Getty Villa, where the Getty Bronze is on display. The sculpture is in good condition although its feet are missing. Just how its feet were lost is a matter of some speculation. But it quite likely occurred when the ship transporting it from ancient Greece sank in a storm. When it was found by fishermen in the Adriatic Sea encrusted with shells, coral, and mud, it had been submerged for some two thousand years.
Its history raises questions about the nature and scale of Imperial Roman trade in Greek bronzes and the relative aesthetic merits of the sculpture’s water-damaged surface. As Tim is a specialist in ancient art, Anne an historian in modern and contemporary art, and Charley a renowned sculptor, it was no surprise that they had different responses to the Getty Bronze.
I begin by asking Tim to describe the sculpture.
POTTS: It’s a more or less life-size figure in bronze, of probably a youth in ephebos who’s someone aged late teens, perhaps around twenty. He’s clearly an athlete, and he’s won a competition of some kind, because he’s wearing—
CUNO: Well, you say it’s clearly an athlete. What is it about him that makes him seem so clearly to have been an athlete?
POTTS: The wreath.
CUNO: The wreath in his hair.
POTTS: [over Cuno] He has the wreath, which is a laurel or olive wreath, which was the traditional prize or signifier that you’ve won an athletic competition of some kind, in either probably the Olympic Games, the ones in Olympia, or the ones in Delphi. And he’s gesturing with his right hand towards the wreath. He’s either just placed it on his head, or he’s about to take it off, which you would often do as—and then dedicate the wreath in honor of the gods. So it could be putting it on or taking it off. In fact, probably—
CUNO: [over Potts] So this would emulate an actual activity.
POTTS: Yes. They would do this often, as a sort of sign of their piety, to dedicate their victory and the wreath to the gods. He’s shown naked as athletes were. They tended to practice the games, the competitions nude. This was another expression of what we call the heroic nudity of Classical life, where you know, great heroes, whether they’re warriors, athletes or whatever, they were proud of their bodies. It was the expression of their strength and virility and everything else. So they tended to, you know, work out in the gymnasium, have the competitions naked. They’d oil the bodies.
CUNO: What would be the purpose of the sculpture?
POTTS: [over Cuno] Okay, the sculpture would be a commemorative, celebratory sculpture to celebrate the victory of this athlete. And—
CUNO: A particular athlete…
POTTS: [over Cuno] A particular athlete who’d won at a particular games. And these would be dedicated either in the place where the games had been held—so normally Delphi or Olympia, or perhaps in the hometown of the victor himself, that the town would pay for. These are expensive objects. Bronze was a precious material. And these would be set up at the hometown to celebrate this great achievement, or as I say, to the gods, in the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi, or of Zeus at Olympia. This was a common practice, part of, if you like, the celebration of athletic achievement. We can’t tell, really, what sort of athlete he was. He’s—the age of the figure is such at he’s not yet, you know, a fully formed man with, you know, the very, you know, the extreme musculature that you get in some of the sculptures. He’s not a boxer or anything like that; he doesn’t have quite the physique for it.
CUNO: If he’s meant to represent a particular athlete, that is someone who—an athlete that might’ve been known to a public, is there any indication that we actually know the names of any such athletes that were memorialized by sculpture?
POTTS: Yes, there’s sometimes textual references to, you know, particularly famous and successful athletes. Sometimes on the bases of the sculptures, you’ll get the name of the athlete that they’re celebrating. But of course, we don’t have the base from this one, so we don’t know who he was. Probably never will.
CUNO: Obviously, the physical condition or the material condition of the sculpture indicates that was removed from the base by being torn from the base or somehow removed, in such a way that it’s lost the lower part to the legs and the feet. Is that some indication that’s meaningful to us, of how it was removed from its location in Olympia or wherever it was?
POTTS: Probably, it could’ve happened a couple of ways. One is that—
CUNO: [over Potts] Because it was found in…
POTTS: In the sea, yeah.
CUNO: …in the sea, off the coast of Italy, [Potts: Yeah] in international waters, [Potts: Yeah] off the coast of Italy. So it was—it had been removed from Athens or Olympia.
POTTS: [over Cuno] Yeah. Exactly. And I think there’s two major possibilities. One is that the damage was done, separating the feet, when it was actually just removed from the base for transport, presumably to Rome or somewhere else in Italy. I suspect the corrosion and the damage took place when the ship sank, when it went down, maybe in it being retrieved in the nets of the fishermen, which is how it was recovered. It may’ve been still attached to its stone base—maybe the weight, you know, then was separated because—through that. I think more likely, this happened—’cause they would not—you know, without the feet, it’d be very hard to display and it’s damaged goods. And they would’ve been more careful than that. I suspect it wouldn’t have been transported in this damaged state without feet. Probably they would’ve had them repaired or something before transport.
CUNO: And—and why was it transported? I mean, it was part of a trade in antiquities at the time?
POTTS: [over Cuno] Part of a huge trade. I mean, the sculpture was probably made in the fourth century BC, around the time of the sculptor Lysippos. And we can come back to that. But when the Romans conquered the Mediterranean, most of the Mediterranean world, and Greece in particular, in the mid second century BC, from then on, there was a massive trade of bringing back these famous mostly bronze, but also marble sculptures, from Greece to Rome. And this flourished from the second century, first century BC, and into the first century AD. And thousands of sculptures would’ve been shipped, as I said, back to Rome and other major cities in Italy. And in fact, you know, a lot of what we know about Greek sculpture now comes from these works that have been found, either in Italy, or that were lost—we’re beginning to find more and more of these in the water because some of these ships went down in storms.
They would’ve been set up—they could’ve been set up, again, in gymnasia and other public spaces. But they were also being actively acquired by private individuals, wealthy people who owned villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum , place like that, or in Rome itself. And the emperors themselves, of course, were great collectors of these things. And there’s a famous Lysippos work by Lysippos, in the style of this sculpture, known as the Apoxyomenos, the Scraper, which was—had been installed in the baths in Rome and was one of these very famous public works on public display. And then Tiberius, the emperor, decided it was so nice he’d like to have it in his private apartment, so he took it. And there was such an outcry from the public that he had to—he agreed to put it back on public display.
The Greeks, in the Roman period, continued to make versions, copies, whatever you want to call them, and new sculptures in the style of the earlier masters or of their own time. So the production of bronze work in Greece continued, and a lot of the market there now was not for patrons or clients in Greece; it was to be shipped then back to Rome. So there are things both genuine, say, works of the fourth century being shipped back; first century BC copies or versions of those sculptures being made afresh and shipped to Rome, works, once they arrived in Rome, who become models in workshops there, for copies either in bronze but more often now in marble.
CUNO: At this point, Anne Wagner and Charley Ray joined the conversation, which moved to a consideration of the sculpture’s breaks and losses and the sense that its “aliveness” or “inner life” may be enhanced by the sculpture’s aged appearance, by its scars and discoloration.
ANNE WAGNER: Tim, one of the questions—another question, really, that this conversation about its transport raises for me goes back to the break that you already referenced, and which theoretically, at least, could lead to two scenarios. One would be that it was broken off intentionally, just to get it and—so that it would eventually be rendered up to produce more bronze. But your scenario is that it was transported in order to be an object of luxury and to make its way, potentially, into some Roman collection. But the rub in there that I’m trying to understand, that I want to ask you about, is do you think, then, that it was transported on its base if it was going into a Roman collection? And the reason that I ask that is because I sort of had the feeling that one reason it would break at its ankles, off the base, would be if it was weighted to stand up properly, or if the lower—if it was securely affixed, it would break in that way. So do you think that there was any chance that it was robbed for plunder? Or do you think it was transported with its base which would give it kind of more, I don’t know, auratic meaning in the Roman context?
POTTS: I think there was such an appetite for this sculpture, and such a market for it, [Wagner: Mm-hm] I think it’s very likely that it was being transported as a work of art, to be collected and, you know, admired [Wagner: Yeah] as a work of art, not just to be recycled, ’cause they could’ve melted it down in Greece. And that’s a much easier way to do things.
WAGNER: [over Potts] More efficient, yeah.
POTTS: But I agree entirely with you. The ankles are the weak point in most sculptures. That’s where things tend to break when there’s a, particularly if there’s a very heavy—the bases, the plinths, of course, are stone, well, it could be bronze or it could be stone, and they’re very heavy. So if in going down in the shipwreck, there would be a point of tension, it’s going to snap mostly likely at the ankles. And that’s my suspicion, that it was actually during the shipwreck that this was disconnected from the feet and the base, and they’re [Wagner: Yeah] probably at the bottom of the ocean.
WAGNER: I mean, the ankles seem to be really sort of revealing points, at the moment we start to think about its fabrication. Partly because the way that the metal sort of rips.
CHARLES RAY: [over Wagner] Would it—would it not bend more, though? Let’s just say if it had this great weight of a stone base and it tumbled off a ship in a storm, let’s just say, and it, you know, with a shock, hit the bottom, or— [Wagner: Yeah] or someone went to plunder it off the base or something. I mean, just these breaks are—are, as you said, snaps. And you know, my experience with metals—I mean, bronze has a more of a brittleness to it that something with an alloy, like steel. But would it snap like that? Or would it—I mean, does this follow [Cuno: Well, I—] a seamline per se, you know?
POTTS: But it is a tear. I mean, look at the very irregular—you know, the contour of the break. If they were cutting off— [Wagner: Yeah; (inaudible voice)] If they’re cutting it off, it’s—
RAY: [over Potts] It’s not a cut.
POTTS: It’s happening through an accident of some kind, I would say.
WAGNER: And so that sort of actually lends weight to the idea that it was being transported to Rome as a work of art, and not some sort of plunder notion, which would be the alternative. It really looks like the violence of accident or, you know.
CUNO: And Tim, you referenced Lysippos, [Potts: Yes] with regard to this. And it would’ve been prized, if it had been by Lysippos or thought to have been Lysippos or in the manner of Lysippos. I mean, in particular, that association privileged this as an object for the trade, is that right?
POTTS: [over Cuno] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I should emphasize the view that this is either by Lysippos or in the style of Lysippos, who was the major sculptor of the fourth century BC, was the court sculptor of Alexander the Great, almost certainly traveled with him on his conquests. It’s certainly in that style of that moment. And the quality of it is very high; and therefore, you know, what we would expect of a Lysippos. None of his bronzes that we can be sure are actual originals by him have survived. Like this, they are attributions. So we can’t say that it’s Lysippos for sure. There isn’t an inscription or anything else to tell us. But from what the ancient authors describe of his style, the nature of the—he’s particularly renowned for the sort of naturalism of his works, and the hair, the animation of the hair, and the fluid musculature that you might notice. This is a—it’s partly his youth, relative youth; but also the style, the sort of fluid, softer form of the musculature arose in the—earlier in the Classical period. There were these sharper divisions. They were sort of beefier, more angular, if you like. This has a more natural, fluid stance, which is exactly what we hear was typical of Lysippos’ work. So it’s a—I think it’s a plausible attribution, but like many of these things, we can’t, you know, be absolutely definitive.
WAGNER: It’s those qualities that’s—Lysippan qualities, I mean—that feed back into the idea and complicate the idea that it’s a straightforward portrait, because there’s enough about that visage to take it away from individuality, into a kind of—not quite a heroization, but an idealization in Lysippan terms of what the hero might be. You know, he’s a bit like Alexander, but he also has a—he has consciousness, I think. I don’t know whether Charley would agree, but he sort of has a—he has an internal vision.
RAY: [over Wagner] Oh, yeah.
WAGNER: He has—there’s a lot of attitude; that he’s looking towards this dedicatory ritual.
RAY: [over Wagner] His whole body has it. [Wagner: Yeah] I mean, look at—this is kind of fascinating. If you look at the penis to the testicles, you know, they’re not flat on the ballsack. It’s lifted slightly. You know? There’s space between the testicle and the penis. So you know, normally, that’s all gonna be, you know, kinda dropping together, [Wagner: Flaccid] you know, more—it isn’t that it’s not flaccid, but it’s given the artists have given it and the—
CUNO: A sense of life.
RAY: Yeah, the kind of pneuma of the ballsack and yeah, just a sense of life. But it’s not just there.
And then this adjusting or taking the wreath on or off. But there’s just this gesture of—it’s so delicate here. You know? And that’s where thought is, you know? His menthe, he’s thinking, he’s—you know? So there’s all this—you know, like alloy of intentionality, you know, just pushing through the musculature and the gestures of the piece.
CUNO: But that tension—
RAY: [over Cuno] extraordinary.
CUNO: The tension between stylization or idealization and the particularity of a kind of intention that you identified in it is characteristic of what we call the Hellenistic style, right? I mean, that’s something that distinguishes it from the Classical. So this actually featured in an exhibition that we organized here at the Getty Center, around the concept of the Hellenistic style or Hellenistic sculpture. And so Tim, talk to us about that and the role that this sculpture played in the development of that exhibition.
POTTS: Well, it is one of the great early masterpieces of that transitional period from Classical into Hellenistic. Hellenistic art is defined as the period from Alexander the Great—so the 320s BC, basically—down to the first century BC. And Lysippos is the transitional figure. I mean, he starts his career, say, in the mid fourth century, perhaps as early as the 360s. And then continues, as I say, working for Alexander. The famous portraits of Alexander are believed to be by Lysippos. And head a very long career, perhaps even down close to 300. So a career of sixty, or maybe even seventy years. And he alone is said to have produ—Pliny tells us that he produced over 1500 sculptures. So a huge output.
So Lysippos introduces, if you like, the Hellenistic period. And then other artists who, you know, in his wake and others, continue the trend towards both greater naturalism, but also a much more intense interest in the inner life of the subject, the emotion of—and the pathos, expressing in a much more evocative and emotional way, the power of the warrior in battle, of some—the pathos of someone wounded and dying. You know, these extremes of emotion. So you—mouths open, brows get furrowed, dramatic gestures. All of the qualities that we associate with, if you like, Baroque art in the Italian seventeenth century, these same qualities come to the fore in the Hellenistic period, from the later fourth through the first century BC. So it—and for many of us, this is the high point of Greek art. This is art which has gone through its austere, rigid, heroic but rather formal phases in the Archaic and Classical period, and here, it truly comes to life.
These figures walk and stand and gesture like real bodies. They have their weight, as this one does, on one leg, trailing the other one. The poses, the gestures—you can imagine these figures coming to life, walking off the pedestal. And in fact, the ancient authors talk about this, saying that Lysippos himself, he had this great ability to imbue his figures with a great sense of reality and a quality of being living. All that they lacked was actual breath.
CUNO: And in that respect, to you, Anne, the question. You’ve written that every work of sculpture, whether abstract or figurative, is both a material and a bodily entity. What did you mean by that? And—it’s related, I think, to also something you’ve written about, the sculptor having the capacity to invest inanimate materials with some vitalizing quality, without ever quite erasing the work’s thingness from our minds. So that that tension, that it is both [Wagner: Yeah ] physical thing and then that [Wagner: Yeah] which is invested with life.
WAGNER: This continues to strike me as the most marvelous thing about sculpture, that you always have to play between your sensory knowledge, that you can touch it and it’s made out of tangible materials, oftentimes that, you know, crop up elsewhere in life. So you might see a hunk of stone, and you know that it could be used to make a building or it could be used to make a statue. And then you kind of think between building and statue or between, you know, blockiness and statue, or these—or marbleness and statue. They—these things go back and forth. And in the case of this work, I mean, I think Tim sort of already spoke to it. And when he used the word fluidity to talk about Lysippan style, one of the things that bronze is, and is made to be, is malleable. It’s fired and it becomes a liquid. And that liquid shaping capacity—that liquid takes the shape of the mold to which it’s assigned. But you can’t forget that meantime, that you’re looking at a metallic form. So body and bronze become one. But they’re never entirely one. That’s what I’m meaning, that you can’t—you can’t merge them. And they’re not meant to be merged, partly because the sculpture and the sculptor will capitalize on what he or she knows about the qualities of the material that’s being worked with.
CUNO: And of course, over the centuries which this has survived, its materiality has changed, because of the conditions in which it was [Wagner: Yeah] buried for so long in the sea. And so we’re looking at something that is quite different, or at least different, than what it—though it, you know, those at the time of [Wagner: Yeah] its making saw it its surface.
WAGNER: Yeah, well, I was thinking about that, the—you know, the way that we—that the patination of ancient bronzes has changed so much over time. And scholars think that they flashed and were brighter than they are now. And I was thinking how grateful I am that I get to know them in their darkness. And also this one, I mean, the surface of this sculpture is almost impossibly beautiful. You know? It actually reminds us of other kinds of things in the world, kind of amazing conglomerate rocks. And it’s so full of color. And I’m—you know, if there are such things as happy accidents, there is at least in part, a happy accident. It’s sad that it lost its feet, but it’s fantastic that gained this surface.
POTTS: [over Wagner] Yeah. It’s a very aesthetic, though, liking this. [Wagner: Yeah] For the Greeks, this was—of course, it’s bright green and then it’s almost black and then it’s this deep bronzy brown.
CUNO: What did it look like originally? What do we know about how original bronzes looked?
POTTS: Well, it would’ve been this more gleaming golden color.
CUNO: And what makes up the color?
POTTS: Well, the alloys. The amount of tin that you—tin is the main other alloy. This was, you know, pr—so anywhere from 5 to 10%. This one, from the analysis we’ve done is about 10%, which is in the normal range, but at the higher end. Lead and other things—
CUNO: [over Potts] And it would’ve led to—
POTTS: Yeah, some lead.
CUNO: Glowing greenish or glowing goldish color?
POTTS: More glowing golden. I mean, the lead—sorry, the tin makes it that more—that brighter bron—less coppery and more yellow, if you like, and more golden colored. They inlaid parts with copper. The nipples here and the lips are—
CUNO: [over Potts] Are those copper?
POTTS: …inlaid in copper, yeah. Sometimes—
CUNO: [over Potts] So there would’ve been a redder color, in [Potts: Yes, yes, exactly] contrast to the gold color of the body.
POTTS: The pure copper color. The teeth sometimes—I’m not sure we’ve got teeth with this, ’cause the lips are more or less closed—but sometimes the teeth are silvered. And the eyebrows will also be—normally be copper, sheets of copper very delicately cut and then applied. But the overall effect was the golden…
CUNO: [over Potts] And the eyes would’ve been glass?
POTTS: And the eyes would be inlaid. Usually with glass, but it can be also, you know, marble or white stones, or even shell or bone for the white of the eye. But normally they’re glass. Sometimes things like obsidian for the pupil. It varies. But it’s glass, some combination of hard stones, glass, occasionally shell and bone.
WAGNER: I have been thinking about is this idea of brightness. And one of the things which is so striking in the Iliad is that in warfare and when men appear to fight before each other, or to compete in games, they have—they shine. They have brightness.
And if we think about a place of dedication where these works had a glow or a gleam, they had this sort of quality of a sort of apparition, and—which is what shining does—and I like to think about that sort of apparitional moment within a ceremonial and sacred and dedicatory context. And I also think it’s essential that we understand it as kind of being the flip side of war, that the shine is there in both places. I don’t ever want to see them all shining in any mockup, you know? I would never ever wanna see the Parthenon with a bunch of shining figures around it, because it wouldn’t have—it wouldn’t be able to carry for me that marvelousness, because I wouldn’t be infused with belief. But to know that that was part of it, I think—I find sort of magical. I find that a magical knowledge, as—but maybe not the knowledge that you or I might take about the pressure of space on the body or the fluidity of the muscles or the tightness of the ballsack and its [Ray: Yeah] seedy contents and all of those other things that seem so marvelous.
POTTS: I’m at a slightly different—I’d love to be able to [Wagner: You, yeah?] walk through the Acropolis of the fourth—fifth or fourth century BC, see—or one of the great, you know, gymnasia or other things, to see the architecture, which also the columns and the architectural sculptures would’ve painted, the marble sculptures would’ve been largely painted. These bronzes would’ve been all gleaming. We imagine them—that being very, too bright, too, in a way, kitsch, because the modern—as we were saying earlier, the modern reconstructions of it are that way. I’m not sure if you were actually able to experience the total ensemble like that, whether it would’ve been or not. And I would love to be able to experience [Wagner: Just so you knew that, yeah] it that way. Yeah.
It may not be our aesthetic at all. We are so trapped in this idea that marble is this beautiful, pure, gleaming, white material, and it neutralizes [Wagner: Yeah] the colors. But of course, it’s to—we’ve known since the eighteenth century that’s totally wrong. [Wagner: Yeah] But we can’t get outside that mindset.
CUNO: Or equally, a bronze that is a singular color, as opposed to having multiple colors, the polychromy. So would it matter to you, Anne, looking at it, or Charley, looking at this, and this idea that imbued in this material is the sense of life, If the color of the copper, of the nipples or the glass of the eyes or the silver of the teeth, if that were apparent to you, would that breathe yet more life into the sculpture?
WAGNER: Well, I mean, one has seen works where this is true, where for some marvelous reason, these parts of the work have survived. And sometimes they do bring more the sense of aliveness. But I don’t— [chuckles] I mean, there is a funny little Roman head in this museum, a little—a little portrait, a Roman portrait of a girl with her eyes still in there. And—but she’s—she doesn’t really have a liveness, because they’re not all that well done. They’re kind of—you know, it really, it really depends, I think.
RAY: [over Wagner] But isn’t—that’s to us.
RAY: And then there’s to them.
RAY: Do you know what I mean? So like it’s like there is af—when I look at this, there’s not anything lacking that I wanna see it differently or put it back into it. I would gladly go. There’s no such thing as a time machine, but I would gladly go to the Acropolis and look at how they were painted and how things were. You know, I’m sure I wouldn’t understand them.
You know? It’s like the old idea, if your dog could talk to you—Wittgenstein’s idea—if your dog could talk to you, you wouldn’t be able to understand what it had to say. I think if I went back there and saw these painted with glass eyes and sandals and all that—I mean, we had a hard enough time, when I was young, coming to terms with the Degas in the tutu. You know, with the [Wagner laughs] ribbon in the hair. I mean, it would look so—I wouldn’t—it isn’t that they would look kitschy. I just wouldn’t—I wouldn’t have the ability to understand them, just as coming up, they would be horrendous if someone from the ancient world saw it like this. They’d say, you know, “Beyond repair. [Wagner: Yeah] The surface is gone.” You know, it’d be, “Throw it out. Melt it down. Start again.” You know? But it isn’t that—you know, like the marbles that, oh, we were wrong. They were painted.
You know, I kind of believe this thing that age makes something and li—you know? That—that there is something so marvelous about it that it launched it in to time. [Wagner: Yeah] And it still works today.
CUNO: Let me try something else on you. So of the techniques that sculptors use to enliven the sculpture further than the form itself, and so I’m assuming—and you know, I can see it, that the sculptor went to some bother to tool around the fingernails.
RAY: That’s beautiful.
CUNO: [over Ray] That—you—you know, to—to bring them to life. Or—or for him to feel that the sculpture was complete, that it wouldn’t have been completed without it, even if that tooling wasn’t particularly visible in the original location in which the sculpture would’ve been seen. In other words, for the artist to finish the work, it had to do something that probably would not be seen or appreciated by all those who saw it. But in his mind, it was necessary to give the fingernails that completion.
POTTS: They did. They chased the—often in the hair, things like—as you say, details of hands and so on.
RAY: A fabricator told me, on the East Coast, that he was doing—he had a huge falling out with Stella—that he was doing this big project for Stella, one of the big hanging reliefs. [Cuno: Frank Stella] Yeah. And—and Frank was unhappy with it. He looked at the back, at the thing that hangs it on the wall, the hanger. He said, “Look at this crap!” And the fabricator said, “Well, ain’t nobody gonna see it.” And Frank Stella said, “I already have.” [Wagner: And that’s the—] You know, and so all these chasing and—you know, it’s part of the follow through the punch, the artfulness of it, I think. That it wouldn’t be any other way. There is no back or hidden part.
RAY: You know?
WAGNER: That’s true.
POTTS: Can I get back to the portraiture aspect of this? ’Cause it’s a [Wagner: Yeah] key thing about Hellenistic art. This is the period. We know there were portraits done in the Classical period. But most of the sculpture you find through the fifth and earlier fourth century, the faces tend to be sort of more stereotypical. And it’s in the Hellenistic period that you get what we would instantly recognize as, you know, unequivocally portraiture. And it’s both because subjects are often very young or are middle aged or elderly and you see—start seeing all the wrinkles, the warts, all the different expressions. So in the Hellenistic period, we do have a real flourishing of portraiture as one of the main sort of threads that distinguishes Hellenistic sculpture.
But this is the period when there’s endless debate, and every scholar has a different view, whether the—a given face—in this case, of the Getty Bronze—is still more a type, or is it actually now an individual? Could we say this is what this person looked like? It was—whoever said it earlier, there are aspects of the brow and the nose that look rather like the portraits that we attribute—of Alexander, [Wagner: Yeah] that are attributed to Lysippos.
To me, this is one of those in between faces that really, it’s impossible to know. I mean, someone could’ve looked exactly like this, and the artist did their best and achieved a good likeness. Or they may just be playing off what was a fairly conventional mid fourth century face. And there’s many other sculptures of the fourth century that have faces, you know, quite similar to this. Some of them by Lysippos, some by other sculptors.
CUNO: [over Potts] But part of Anne’s interest in the sculpture and its lifelikeness quality depends on a sense of a convincing portrayal of a person, right? [Wagner: Well, you know, I—] It can’t be abstracted, no?
WAGNER: No, I don’t—I don’t think aliveness in a sculpture means realism, by any means. I really—I really don’t think so. I think that aliveness has to do with, you know, the physicality and the—of the work as a whole, you know, and the interchange between representation and medium. And I don’t think that that’s only conveyed by imitation. I mean, aliveness and deadness oftentimes go together hand-in-hand in sculpture. But you asked me in another context about Hinoki, and which is Charley’s life-size recarving of an enormous wood log. And you asked me something about how the work on that material contributes to its aliveness or deadness, I think, more or less. And there, you know, the aliveness is not—doesn’t simply rest in the remaking of a log that we sort of automatically know was a tree and a trib—you know, and think of in terms of it a living thing. But the aliveness has to do with the ways in which the carvers differentiated the kind of flow of their tools through their wooden material, and gave it its own sort of utterly animated surface, which is the aliveness of their touch and the—you know, the—each cut and scoop of the tool contributes to a kind of pattern, which is the flow of the work.
CUNO: [over Wagner] So it’s the evidence of working, as opposed to the simulation of the reality of the model of the sculpture itself. It’s a sense that there’s evidence that it has been made by someone.
WAGNER: It ca—yeah. Or—but also that that making has a particular effect. I mean, you know, I mean, Charley’s work is a fabulous example of this, because the impression of aliveness can come through so many different ways. I mean, for example, in the stainless steel works, it comes in the polish. And the polish does all kinds of things with light, which—
CUNO: You mean Charley’s works in which…
WAGNER: Charley’s works, yeah. I mean, in this work, I don’t know, we could—I mean, we’ve been talking about the different ways, but its aliveness and—I mean, I think part of it has to do with all of these things that Charley has been pointing to that are—I mean, you could sum them up as—you talk about kind of the pressure of the world on the body and what gives it its idiosyncrasy, and where do those impulsions come from, you know? And that is how we situate it, we understand it as a particular body situated in space and within gravity. But they—
RAY: [over Wagner] There’s great feeling of that. [Wagner: Yeah] You know, there’re the fingers and this great complexity of different— [Wagner: Yeah] you know, kind of fractalled space. You know, there must’ve been in time, you know, the place where it was, this great [Wagner: Yeah] kinda civic space around it. And then, you know, you can go next to between the arm, then between the hands, between the dick and the balls. I mean, it—the space just and the power of that space never diminishes anywhere, and it’s in a kind of flowing relationship [Wagner: Yeah] to—
WAGNER: But it’s also, too, I think in—I mean, one of the—if you actually situate yourself right in front of the work and then you kind of see—I mean, when I first learned about sculpture in antiquity, you know, you had the S curve and, you know, you were allowed to like, feel your weight shift on your own body as you—in the hip shot pose and [Ray: Yeah, yeah] and all of these classics of [Ray: Yeah] the teaching of antique sculpture. But it’s so much more than that. You can see, you know, these tensions kind of flowing through the body again, and back and forth and back and forth.
POTTS: And these poses are—which look so natural and easy, when you put—try to put yourself in them, [Wagner: Yeah] they’re actually quite difficult. They’re not as natural as they look, which is part of the brilliance of them. [Wagner: Yeah] They’re slightly artificial when you tr—as you [Wagner: Yeah] find out when you try to imitate them. But yet they have this sense of a body that is, you know, in a natural, normal [Wagner: Yeah] motion.
RAY: ] But you know, there’s a great celebration of its making that— [Wagner: Yeah] is what links up to the celebration of the winner.
WAGNER: I would go farther than the celebration of the winner. I mean, I would say that this winner is a type of the masculine. I mean, he is an epitome of, you know, sort of what the young male can do and be.
CUNO: Do you think that the head is properly placed on the body in its restoration? Do you think the arms are—
POTTS: [over Cuno] Well, it hasn’t detached. You know, it was—one of the things is that it was cast as one piece, which is not often the case. It’s not piecemeal or whatever.
WAGNER: [over Potts] Yeah, that’s very interesting.
RAY: Well, the arms are off, though, right? I mean, look. I mean—
POTTS: Yeah, they’ve been rejoined, that’s clear.
WAGNER: And you can see certain sort of plug, you know, fills and stuff, as [Ray: Yeah, I—] you would expect, from the screws and all of that.
RAY: [over Wagner] Well, I really think, from our earlier conversation, if you look at these breaks—and again, I’m not an expert. But you know, it just—the geometry of it, it really—I mean, that’s how we put things together in the studio.
POTTS: Mm-hm. And sometimes the extremities are cast solid. Like the hands, probably, here are solid.
CUNO: One last question, and then we should wrap up because of time. But when you look at the sculpture from the back, as opposed to the front, there seems to be a greater adolescence suggested to this figure, it seems to me, ’cause there’s less articulation of musculature in the back than there is in the front. In the front, the figure looks like, I don’t know what, a twenty-year-old or some mature figure. But this on the back has a kind of tenderness to it, a kind of not-yet-fully-developed muscularity. Is there a sense in this liveness to it, this presence that it has, of a vulnerability, as well as a strength and—?
POTTS: I don’t know. I think it’s of a piece. He is not yet—as has been said, he’s not—he’s more than a boy, but he’s not quite a man. He’s in that in between. The back is, you know, less articulated; but then backs are. But even the pectorals and the abdomen here at the front, they’re quite soft and gently articulated. I suppose the—to me, the fluidity of the musculature is pretty consistent between what you’d expect on the front and the back, but who knows?
WAGNER: [over Potts] I think it is fairly consistent. And one of the things that I was remarking to myself earlier was that part of the Greek tradition in the male nude is to really emphasize the muscles that go from—along the tops—I don’t know the name of them. This kind of abdominal girdle that are—you know, that makes a kind of quite raised triangle and that you see a lot quite— [Ray(?): Yeah, all this] Yeah, all that. And he doesn’t have that. And he has a lovely si—his belly is a kind of sticky-outie belly a little bit. It’s a little bit of a soft belly. It’s not—you know, nowadays, men—you know, you go for the six pack. And there’s no six pack here.
CUNO: So if seen as it was seen in the context of the exhibition Power and Pathos, with this boxer, this other sculpture [Wagner: Yeah, which is—] of this tired old man [Wagner: Brutalized and cauliflower ears and—] who’s been beaten up and he’s bloody and so forth. [Wagner: Yeah] Yeah, cauliflower ears. This sense of his greatness is that youthfulness and that power of victory at an early stage of life. And a sense that that might last forever. That it might not be compromised by aging.
WAGNER: Yeah, well, this is supposed to sto—it does stop time. You know, this is a—it’s kind of like Kleobis and Biton and their dying at their apogee. You know, it—sculpture does stop time, in some basic way.
CUNO: The exhibition we referenced near the end of our discussion was the Getty Museum’s exhibition, Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, which was on view at the Getty Center from July to November 2015. To learn more about that exhibition, to see the “Getty Bronze” in the context of other Greek bronzes, and to find more resources for this episode, visit getty.edu/podcasts.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIM POTTS: For many of us, this is the high point of Greek art. These figures walk and stand and...