Art and architecture critic

The ancient Athenians considered most everyone else barbarians, and that snobbery has trickled down to us through the eons. When we think of Greek civilization, we think of the Golden Age of Athens in the 5th century B.C., of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and statesmen such as Pericles, whose funeral oration would sound almost traitorous to many Americans today: “We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality. . . . ”

The Hellenistic Age came later, ushered in by the conquests of Alexander the Great, a Macedonian who is still remembered a bit like Napoleon, a brilliant, ruthless parvenu. Although Alexander’s empire may have fallen apart after his death, the shards of what remained carried Greek culture forward, often in fierce cultural competition with each other, each laying claim to the Greek patrimony and surpassing it with virtuoso innovations. And yet, the Hellenistic legacy is still slightly suspect, too flamboyant and overwrought if judged by the standards of Athens at its apex of power.

An exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World,” offers what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study one essential aspect of the Hellenistic Age. In all the world, there are fewer than 200 surviving bronzes from the Hellenistic and Classical ages, and about a quarter of those are on display. Among them are some of the most moving and celebrated artworks from any age, including an Apoxyomenos (athlete with scraping tool) from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the astonishing Sleeping Eros from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a Horse Head that once belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent, the de’ Medici ruler, and was admired by Donatello and Verrocchio.

Go now, and go again many times before the exhibition closes March 20. If you despair of the world we have made, retreat here. Any single work is a tonic; collectively they are a wonder.

The title of the exhibition refers to the essential innovation of Hellenistic artists, the extension of sculpture from a limited repertoire of ideal bodies to a more expressive, naturalistic and individualized language. Sculptors never stopped depicting the serenity of gods and the perfection of youth, but they also encompassed the old and infirm, the anxious and careworn, the fretful and thoughtful. Alongside Apollo and Athena came images of craftsmen, poets and sulky aristocrats, in all their fleshy, paunchy and debauched glory.

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze). “Dancing Faun (Pan),” c. 125-100 BC. ( Copyright Archivio dell'arte, Luciano Pedicini)

Although marble was the preferred medium for representing the ideal, especially the gods, bronze became the preferred medium for making images of ordinary humans. It was capable of more daring forms than marble. Hair could curl away from the head, arms could be represented outstretched without supports. It was also possible to make multiple casts of the same form, so thousands of bronzes were made throughout the Greek and early Roman world, and could be found even on the peripheries of what was then considered civilization.

For a striking sense of how Hellenistic artists used the form, spend some time with a sculpture known as the Dancing Faun. This is the same figure that gave its name to the House of the Faun in Pompeii, and he, like so many other works in the show, exists today because at some point in history, he was lost — in an accident, or shipwreck, or building collapse, or in this case, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The designers of the exhibition have cleverly positioned the Dancing Faun such that he is flanked by two bronze statues of Apollo, and the Apollos could not be more different from the randy and enraptured Pan figure lost in lascivious bliss. The Apollos, although both Hellenistic in origin, hark back to an older, archaic tradition. They are stiff and relatively expressionless, and their faces are generically beautiful but without any individual features. They were made to appeal to the ongoing interest in older Greek forms, proof of the breadth of taste and an interest in historicism. They were, perhaps, created for late Greek and early Roman audiences in the same way that some people today put newly painted works in a faux Colonial-era style above the fireplace.

The Faun is a spectacular piece of work, from its perky little tail (the sort of thing that would be impossible to make in marble) to its acorn-crowned and wildly unkempt tresses. But it is also curiously playful and unsettling at the same time. Its body is young and lithe, while the face is seemingly older and marked by a life of that which the Greeks feared most, excess, extremity and wildness. He is a composite figure, joining together both the ideal and undoing of beauty.

A small statue of the Weary Herakles is in some ways similar. The muscular hero stands supported by his club over which is draped the Nemean lion’s skin. His left arm is awkwardly positioned over the top of the club, and his face and gaze are turned down to look at the tool and the reward of his labors. The club and lion skin, however, deform the perfection of his physique, making him seem out of proportion and slightly grotesque. He. too, is a composite figure, son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, and he is caught in a moment of contradiction: success and exhaustion, accomplishment and depletion. The work has a kind of circular energy that begins with his eyes, flows through his club and returns up the right side of the body, to form a loop of meaning, an endless reenactment of how human beings are so often ground down by the very greatness they seek.

This exhibition is the third iteration of a show that began in March at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and traveled to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It is markedly different from the show as presented at the Getty, which included one breathtaking piece — a seated boxer — that had to be returned to Rome before it could travel here. The Getty also included a stunning juxtaposition of two bronze versions of the Apoxyemenos and a bronze-and-marble version of the Spinario (Boy Removing a Thorn From His Foot). In place of those works, the National Gallery has substituted others, including a magnificent Running Boy from the Villa dei Papiri in the ancient city of Herculaneum and a delightful statue of Artemis and a Deer (the deer looks up at her with the intelligence and faithfulness of a dog). The loss of the Boxer is particularly regrettable, given how perfectly it represents the idea of pathos, but that was beyond the gallery’s control.

The National Gallery exhibition feels more intimate, and if there is less “wow” factor, there are particularly wonderful moments of connection. A small statue of Alexander on Horseback is seen in front of a reproduction of a detail from the Alexander Mosaic, another treasure found in Pompeii’s House of the Faun. If you stand in the door that joins the third and fourth rooms, you can see a statue of a boy wrapped in a cloak, holding it closed with his hands. The boy looks sulky and sad, a teenager in an adolescent funk. In the other direction is the torso and head of a man, found in the Adriatic Sea in 1992. He is muscular and bulky and seems to scowl, and his expression — is it commanding or brutal? decisive or megalomaniacal? — is unnerving. There is something thuggish about him.

You may have the sense the boy in the cloak could well grow up into the man with the demonic energy in the other room. And yet, that’s unlikely. The statue of the boy was probably a funerary monument, a detail that dissolves his petulance into our pity. His hands, hidden by the cloak, become in some sense a marker of his removal from the world. Together, we sense two different states of being in the world, grappling with it, or shrinking into our own, delimited corner of it.

Somewhat like the circling energies of the Weary Herakles, the dialogue between these two figures is beguiling — youth and maturity, life and death, being fearsome and being frightened. You may feel as John Keats did when contemplating an ancient urn: “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought/As doth eternity.”

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 20. For information, visit www.nga.gov.