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Tracking the Route to Classical Perfection

J. Paul Getty exhibit of early artifacts elucidates later Greek and Roman masterpieces

By Marlena DonohueSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 1995



MALIBU, CALIF.

OUR popular culture tends to take on the antique past by associating it with large and very classical Greek objects - the Parthenon, or perfectly proportioned youths throwing spears and hurling disks. We remember the big moments.

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An excellent eye-opening show here at the J. Paul Getty Museum, called ``A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art From the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman,'' culls some 200 artworks from ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria (the north Italian home of the earliest Romans). The show both substantiates and dispels popular wisdom about Greece and its surroundings.

Organized by the Getty and co-sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Art, the show spans the dates 2600 BC to AD 400 and includes sculptures in marble and bronze; vessels in bronze, silver, terra cotta, and glass; fresco fragments; and sumptuous jewelry.

The trove originates from the Manhattan apartment of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, avid art lovers, international museum supporters (the couple helped the Vatican organize its holdings to reflect modern spirituality), and active participants in the highest levels of academia and art dealership (Mr. Fleischman was the founder of the Smithsonian's Archives on American Art).

The collection and this show indicate that Greek and Roman art traditions were not born full- grown out of Zeus' head like Athena, but evolved from a rich and varied past. That classical context includes, among other things, the abstract African-looking ancient art of the Cycladic islands, the very naturalistic art of the ancient island of Crete, and the animated art of the ferocious Mycenaeans.

After those early inputs, the classical tradition spread to provincial outposts where it underwent other permutations. It was then passed on and adapted in major urban empires like Rome (in fact most of our knowledge of Greek art comes from exact copies of it, made by Greek-loving Roman artisans and powerful patrons).

We recall the big moments, but it is in the little moments, in the array of intimate artifacts from daily life, that we really get a sense for a living context and a larger picture. And it is in the recognition of pristine intimate objects that the Fleischmans' eye and excellent collecting acumen excel.

Fleischman was a successful businessman who as a youth in the Army was captivated by the art and Roman ruins he saw in Europe. When he returned from the war, he and his new bride, Barbara, formed strong ties with a number of reputable museums in his native Detroit.

Fleischman became an internationally noted collector of and expert on American art. In 1966, he became a partner, and later, in 1983, a full owner of the prestigious Kennedy Galleries in New York, specializing in American art.

Once he started selling American art, Fleischman could no longer ethically collect it for himself. He then chose to turn his personal acquisitions to ancient classical art.

Over nearly 30 years, the Fleischmans have amassed a jaw-dropping array of objects selected both for historical value and with a perfectionist's requirement that works be unusually well preserved.