LOS ANGELES — The Getty Bronze, a Greek statue of a beautiful male athlete with enviable hair that is easily the most celebrated artwork at the Getty Villa, has not been knocked off his pedestal.
Now he’s part of a new large gallery devoted to the Hellenistic world, dating from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. to the rise of the Roman Empire in 31 B.C. (And the new pedestal is noticeably slimmer.)
“When you walk into this space, you realize what a wonderful collection of Hellenistic art we have — before, this work was spread out over 10 galleries,” said Timothy Potts, the Getty Museum’s director, who arrived in 2012 with an expertise in antiquities and with strong ideas for improving the Villa’s academic credentials.
One driving force behind the renovation was to put artworks into proper historical context. Potts and his team have rearranged works in the permanent collection galleries to tell a more chronological story, from 3000 B.C. to A.D. 400, largely presenting Greek works on the first floor and Roman on the second. Gone are the entertaining themes like “gods and goddesses” that mixed figures from different periods in a pantheon of superheroes.
Another motivation was to tell a broader, more international story about classical art, going beyond the usual Greek and Roman suspects — Getty’s original collecting focus — to include art from their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern neighbors. Potts, who earned his Ph.D. in the art and archaeology of the Middle East, considers objects from that region relevant to our understanding of the classical world.
“There isn’t a bubble around the classical world, no hard and fast lines separating one culture from another,” said Potts, noting that Alexander the Great’s conquests included Central Asia and that the Roman Empire extended as far as Afghanistan.
He was giving a tour of a new gallery called “The Classical World in Context,” which makes its grand debut along with the permanent-collection reinstall. This gallery relies on long-term loans from other institutions to help broaden the Getty’s horizons.
He pointed out prime examples of first- to third-century funerary relief portraits from Palmyra, the ancient caravan city in the Syrian desert, borrowed from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen.
“The destruction in Syria today makes the exhibition even more topical, but we didn’t choose this material for that reason,” Potts said. Rather, he added, he was interested in how these Syrian objects blend an array of cultural influences.
“Since Palmyra was on the borderland region between the fringe of the Roman Empire and the Parthian empire, the art reflects the coming together of two traditions,” he said, pointing out the Roman drapery on the limestone objects.
Here are five highlights of the re-envisioned Villa, not to be missed. Some are old favorites in new contexts. One comes fresh from long-term storage.
But one very prominent statue is no longer on view: the Getty Kouros, a larger-than-life sculpture of a naked young man once thought by museum leaders to be from ancient Greece. Soon after its purchase in 1985, scholars and scientists publicly doubted its authenticity. It was recently on view at the Villa, labeled “Greek, about 530 B.C. or modern forgery.” Potts is not waffling. “It’s fake, so it’s not helpful to show it along with authentic material,” he said. It will be accessible by appointment.
“The Beauty of Palmyra,” A.D. 190-210
Although time has stripped the statues’ color away, scholars now know that many classical Greek and Roman sculptures were originally not white but as vivid as contemporary works by Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami. You can see evidence of this polychromy painting technique in the showstopper known as “The Beauty of Palmyra,” a limestone funerary sculpture. This heavily bejeweled female figure with Eastern headdress still has flecks of red in her hair and on her cheeks, with gold tints on her pendant necklaces. Kenneth Lapatin, the Getty’s associate antiquities curator, considers her a masterpiece “both for the high quality of the carving and for the preservation of all the polychromy.”
Statue of a Victorious Youth (the Getty Bronze), 300-100 B.C.
Ancient bronzes are exceedingly rare today because the metal was so valuable it was often melted down. But this sculpture, modeled in the style of Lysippos, was preserved by a cosmic accident: a shipwreck in the Adriatic Sea kept it submerged until 1964. Its modeling is powerful, its casting is expert, and the subject of the athletic youth has an illustrious lineage culminating in Michelangelo’s David. The sculpture has been the subject of protracted legal challenges from Italy, which has claimed the work because it was discovered by an Italian fishing trawler and brought back to Italian soil. The Getty has maintained that the piece was found in international waters and that its own acquisition was legal. Asked about the status of the court battles, Potts did not have an update or resolution: “It just goes around the courts,” he said.
Caeretan Hydria (Water Jar) With Herakles and Iolaos Attacking the Hydra, 525 B.C.
The drama comes straight from Greek mythology: Herakles is poised to smash one snakelike head of the hydra, while Iolaos holds a sickle to another. But the style of the vase is not traditionally Greek: The strange lozenge pattern on the rim, the stars right below it, and even the squared-off shape of the rim are typical of pottery from Etruria, in what is now central Italy. “It’s a Greek myth rendered in a way that’s unmistakably Etruscan,” Potts said. He praised the vase as one of the prized pieces in the collection, now on view with other Etruscan works: “It’s got everything you want a great vase painting to have: great subject matter, beautifully executed and distinctive local style.”
Frescoes From Villa Numerius Popidius Florus at Boscoreale, A.D. 1-79
From its gardens to its architecture, the Getty Villa was modeled on the Villa dei Papiri, a Roman seaside estate that was preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. One goal in the reinstall, Potts said, is to create a few moments where you can see what a great ancient estate like this might have contained. For example the walls would not have been painted a cool gray, as they are now, but covered in frescoes, with decorative flourishes and narrative details. These four frescoes fit the bill — they came from another Roman villa active during roughly the same period and were in Getty storage for years. One has a narrative element, but the identity of the figures is a mystery: Some speculate that it’s Socrates and his teacher Diotima. Others, judging by the man’s bare feet and unkempt look, say he is probably a Cynic philosopher, perhaps Diogenes.
Roman Statue of Draped Figure, A.D. 160-190
If you visit this 7-foot-tall female figure, see if you can detect the break in her neck. When the Getty acquired the work in 1972, the head was missing — the sculpture consisted of a body covered in flowing drapery. But two years ago, after seeing a photograph of the intact sculpture during research for the reinstall, Jeffrey Spier, the Getty Museum’s senior curator of antiquities, immediately recognized an object on view at the Royal-Athena Galleries in New York as the missing head.
“I was at the gallery looking at something else Tim was interested in, and I turned around to see the head just sitting there,” he recalled. “I almost laughed, it was so perfect.” The museum acquired it and turned it over to conservators, who have worked to rejoin it to its body and fill the crack. “We had to come up with a new word for it: recapitation,” Spier offered, laughing. He never learned why the head was severed, but suspects it was easier to transport and sell on its own.
“Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance”
From April 18, 2018, to May 27, 2019, at the Classical World in Context gallery at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles; getty.edu/visit/villa/.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.