Over Christmas this past year, the Beav and I passed through DC and stopped to see a temporary exhibit of Hellenistic Bronzes called “Power and Pathos” at the National Gallery.
The show was great, full of large-scale pieces arranged in context, and I learned a lot. But overall it wasn’t the show I expected to see. Nearly all the sculptures were of noble politicians or worthy citizens or well-born children. Fine. What struck me as odd though was that the presentation also felt very carefully straight.
Saying that may sound willful—I mean, why should sexuality come up at all?—but I’m serious. This was a show with numerous male nudes. Yet, it felt constrained the way a group of friends are constrained when they are picking someone up from work but they know that person isn’t out to co-workers and so they are on best behavior hoping not to give the game away. Everything here was proper and intellectual and sexless. Even the herms! And after a bit, the silence about the physicality of what we were seeing began to loom.
My consolation: someone among the curators—maybe all of them even—realized the problem. They must have. And I know this because of the presentation of the final sculpture in the final room of the show. The “Idolino.”
He stood in a familiar pose on a pedestal in front of a false wall hiding the exit, head tilted to the side, weight balanced on one foot. His left arm hung loosely by his side. The right was raised to his waist, palm out. The curators had lit him crisply from the front with two lamps, and so he cast two well-defined shadows on the wall behind him. And those two shadows stood there against the wall, one beside the other, holding hands. The effect was too perfectly achieved, too sentimental, and too gay for me to take it as anything but purposeful.
So standing there looking at the shadows and the sculpture and seeing them together as a whole, I thought: someone gets it and is offering art comment in the language of art.