Sunday, January 11

III: Part I - Reconstructing Identity

From my perspective as an educator at the Villa, special exhibitions help keep things interesting. Unlike the permanent collection, they change on a regular basis, keeping you on your toes because it's never long before you have to learn your way around the next one. It may be stressful when I only have a day to prep before my first public presentation of the exhibit, but ultimately it's one of the things that keeps me intellectually engaged. Last month three small special exhibitions (known as "III") exploring collecting and conservation of antiquities went on display. These three mini-exhibits take up just one gallery each, but they are all excellent and chocked full of information. I haven't yet taken the public thorough, but I think many people who take the time to check them out will find it kind of cool to get a chance to see a "behind-the-scenes" look at museum work. I'm sure many will also be somewhat surprised to see just how patchy and/or debatable available knowledge about an object can be.

Each of these exhibitions stands on it's own, so I plan to give each its own post. The first of the III is called "Reconstructing Identity: A Statue of a God from Dresden." At first glance this exhibition looks to be boringly simple, consisting simply of a headless, armless monumental statue of a nude male in the center of the gallery. I've seen many visitors just pause for a few apprising seconds before him, then wander on. But those who take the time will learn that this statue has had quite a journey since he was recovered from the ancient ruins of Rome in the 1600's. This exhibition traces the life of the statue since its discovery centuries after the fall of the Roman empire. (I'd say it traces the "modern" history of the statue, but since evidence begins in the 16th century CE, the term is relative.) The statue actually belongs to the Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, but last year they brought it to the Villa to be restored. Conservators and art historians were so intrigued by this case, they held a colloquium to discuss it.

Compared to the history of some antiquities, this statue's life post-antiquity is pretty well-known. The statue was first discovered in the 1600's in Italy, minus a head and right arm (and a few other bits). Without a head or arms wearing or holding attributes that might indicate who the statue was supposed to depict, those who found it drew their own conclusions. It was first identified as Alexander the Great--as they thought, such a monumental sculpture was surely of a significant ruler, and who was more significant than Alex? Since the statue was missing a head, they added a head from another ancient statue to the sculpture. (In the 17th century it was rather common for them to pair random ancient sculptural fragments together to create a complete figure.) In this case, the head they added was likely from a statue of Athena or Roma. She was missing her helmet, so they sculpted one for her. They also sculpted an arm to help complete the sculpture. All of these pieces are on display in this exhibition.

In 1728 the Elector of Saxony, who was looking to build his collection of antiquities, bought the sculpture from a wealthy cardinal and brought it to Dresden. An engraving from 1804 indicates that by that time someone decided to remove the right arm that was added in the 1600's. The archaeological discoveries of the 19th century turned up other statues that looked very much like the Dresden example. These more complete examples were clearly depicting the Roman god of wine (and other interesting things), Bacchus. With such comparative examples available, they changed the identification of the statue to Bacchus, and later refined that interpretation and suggested it was Antinous, the young lover of the emperor Hadrian, dressed as Bacchus. Once this later interpretation was made, a new plaster head was cast for the statue based on portraits of Antinous. Eventually that plaster head showed the effects of time (plaster tends to become discolored over the years) so a new cast was made from a bust of Antinous in the British Museum. The first plaster head survives and is on display in the exhibition, but the second plaster head is lost. You can see three side-by-side engravings of the statue from different periods here.

The history of the statue gets sketchy around the 20th century, but we know it was severely damaged at some point during WWII and was eventually packed away in pieces. In 2007 the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden sent the 150 pieces of the statue to the Villa to be conserved. They disassembled the fragments even further so they could clean them and find the core of the ancient statue. The most recent colloquium on the statue (see link above) renewed the discussion on just who this statue was originally meant to depict--and how it should be identified today. They also discussed how much of the later (i.e. non-ancient) repairs to the statue should be restored (albeit by modern conservation standards, which hold that all restorations should be completely reversible). Ultimately their opinion on the identity on the statue remained much the same as it was in the 19th century--the statue probably depicts Bacchus. As for the restorations, certain bits of non-ancient restorations on the statue's drapery were allowed to remain, but they chose not to add any of the heads or arms used on the statue in the past.

And so he stands, headless and armless, yet still visually impressive in the Villa galleries. It seems right that he is finally relieved of those later restorations and now appears closer to his ancient self than he has been since the 1600's. This exhibition does an excellent job of describing to the public how each generation creates meaning in surviving ancient artifacts that is often completely different from that intended by their ancient creators. I also like the way curators made use of the Getty Research Institute's collection of rare books, displaying with the statue the books in which 17th, 18th, and 19th century engravings of the statue were published. Most visitors will probably not make the connection, but I think it's a great demonstration of the way in which the variety and depth of Getty holdings can compliment a display and create a more three-dimensional history of an object.

Note: For images and interactive features related to the exhibit visit this link. Also, if you've seen the exhibit, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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