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The birth of portraiture: bronzes from the Hellenistic age

In this video, we look back at an extraordinary exhibition of bronze statues from the Hellenistic age – a period that began over 2,000 years ago.

“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 show ‘Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World’. “This is really the art of portraiture being born in this period.”

The touring 2016 exhibition featured a quarter of the surviving bronze statues dating from the fourth century BCE to the first century CE, having been displayed in Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art, as well as in Florence and Los Angeles.

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 honour 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, Hellenistic age artists were shifting from the cold, idealised figures of the Greek Classical period to unprecedented realistic representations of the human form.

Bronze, an ideal medium for achieving the high degree of precision and detail that sculptors desired, both contributed to the era’s artistic development, 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.

In fact, 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.

View the original video here.

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