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Tracking the Route to Classical Perfection

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

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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.

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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.