Tracking the Route to Classical Perfection

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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Marion True, the curator of antiquities at the Getty, gives all the credit to the couple, but in fact the kudos should be shared. Ms. True took her lead from the natural, inviting, and thematic way objects are presented in the Fleischmans' New York apartment, arranging the show in general categories such as images of males, images of females, gods, and theater.

It is a forward-looking installation that allows viewers to enter viewing areas through many doors and approach the objects at an individual pace; viewers are led by intuitive proclivity to a subject rather than being carried from date to date as if reading a time line.

The history lesson comes in such an engaging way that one doesn't even notice it. When the very abstracted face of a Cycladic idol from 2600 BC came up at an auction not long ago with a hefty price tag, the Fleischmans were the buyers. The piece is considered a kind of collection marker because it indicates an important line of origin for the enigmatic and haunting art of the Aegean.

Then there are tiny statuettes of soldiers in authentic war attire, shaped like abstracted little geometric toys from the earliest geometric period in Greek art (900-700 BC); full-blown, perfectly rendered males, not larger than half a foot, foreshadowing the essence of current standards of male appeal.

There is a fine little sculpture of a youth dressed as Herakles (Hercules), and there are many perfectly limned images of muscled athletes drawn in black and red figures on the surfaces of the these extraordinary vases owned by the Fleischmans.

Walking into the Getty room that deals with theater, one observes a similar evolution: Early, rather stiff-looking images of masked actors painted on vessels from the first days when tragic drama originated in Greece (around 500 BC) progress in subtle steps to the beautifully classic and much later head of the god Dionysos.

Fragments of walls that may have been just the sort that were destroyed by the volcano at Pompeii show us that Romans borrowed and extended the Greek taste for realistic art. In the bits of fresco wall painting, artists have created ``fool-the-eye'' three-dimensional niches or fake wood moldings with only paint and brush.

Metal handles once casually affixed to pottery are invitingly sumptuous; functional little odds and ends turn into delightful artistry, such as a key shaped into the detailed head of a thoroughbred horse, jaw and muscles straining.

Gold jewelry and silversmithing is intimate enough to hit home, but grand enough to provide a peek at how comfortably the entitled classes lived.

Often private collections give the feel that modern troves, much as the art of emperors and kings, are gathered to validate and laud owners.

In this unusually human yet museum-quality cache, we sense the collectors' sheer pleasure in preserving and sharing gorgeous, informative art.

This is undertaken by a couple who continually refer to themselves not as ``owners'' but as the temporary and careful guardians of priceless windows into our past.

* ``A Passion for Antiquities'' remains at the J. Paul Getty Museum through Jan. 15; it then travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art for an exhibit from Feb. 15 to April 23.

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