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Getty Villa's stylish rock stars

October 25, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Oceanus, ancient god of the sea, rises from the deep with titanic force. His hair is a mass of heavy, wet tendrils, like seaweed dragged onto shore by the surf. Coral branches and lobster claws grow from the top of his head. Dolphins swim out of his beard. Water streams from the corners of his mouth.

With gray-streaked brows and a pensive gaze, this Oceanus is an old man with a mission. If he doesn't suck you into "Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa," an exhibition opening Thursday at the Getty Villa, nothing will.

"He's our rock star," Janet Grossman, Getty associate curator of antiquities, says of the 3rd century artwork that once lined the floor of a Roman-style bath in Tunisia. At the Villa, the roughly 7-by-6-foot fragment of a mosaic pavement is placed on a gallery wall at the end of a corridor, where it can be seen by visitors entering the show.

It's a stunning sight. Composed of thousands of bits of colored limestone, the panel is more than an intricately detailed, emotionally compelling face. Aicha Ben Abed, the director of monuments and sites at Tunisia's National Institute of Cultural Heritage and curator of the exhibition, deems it the masterpiece among many surviving interpretations of a popular theme.

Still, Oceanus has competition in "Stories in Stone," the first major U.S. show of mosaics from Tunisia. Consider an image of Medusa's head, wreathed in snakes, or terrifyingly naturalistic depictions of lions and a tiger ripping into the flesh of other beasts. Or, for something different, a finely executed remnant of an "unswept floor" pavement, depicting cracked eggshells, fruits rinds, vegetable peels and other garbage strewn across a kitchen floor where waste is not a problem and servants clean up messes.

Inspired by a Getty Conservation Institute program designed to train Tunisians to preserve their nation's extraordinary mosaic heritage, the exhibition is a collaborative project of the institute, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Institut National du Patrimoine in Tunisia. Ben Abed selected 26 works from Tunisian national museums' rich collections of ancient mosaics, including unsurpassed holdings of Roman pavements.

Working with co-curators Grossman and Kristin Kelly, an assistant director at GCI, she drew from the Bardo Museum, which maintains the world's largest collection of mosaics in a 19th century palace in Tunis, and smaller museums in Carthage, Sousse, Sfax, Nabeul and El Jem. Getty antiquities conservators Jerry Podany and Eduardo Sanchez were responsible for cleaning and conserving many of the works in the exhibition.

The goal was to present the best possible survey of pavements made for lavish city dwellings, rural estates and public baths when the Roman Empire encompassed Africa Proconsularis, the region that became modern Tunisia. The "American Midwest" of the Roman Empire, Africa Proconsularis had lots of agriculturally rich land and limestone and marble quarries that yielded a broad palette of natural colors.

Craftsmen whose names have long since been forgotten covered thresholds and entire floors with "stone carpets" adorned with geometric and floral patterns, images of nature and daily life and scenes from mythology and legends. What's left of their work provides astonishing insights into a period of artistic abundance.

Three of the four galleries in the show offer mosaic fragments in thematic groups. "The Natural World" offers images of a rabbit nibbling on grapes; voluptuous women near a rose garden, symbolizing spring; and an owl surrounded by dead birds under an inscription, "The birds die of jealousy and the owl does not care," the meaning of which is a matter of scholarly debate. "Theater and Spectacle" includes portrayals of wrestlers, actors and theatrical masks. In the gallery labeled "Myths, Gods and Goddesses," Oceanus appears with depictions of Medusa, Neptune and Venus.

As the exhibition title suggests, all the mosaics tell stories or contribute to narratives that extend beyond their borders. One particularly prized 3rd century work portrays five sponsors of hunting games eating and drinking in an amphitheater, above a group of sleeping bulls.

"They get raunchier from right to left," Grossman says, translating mosaic inscriptions above the men's heads. "The first one says, 'Let's stick together.' The last guy says, essentially, 'Let's get naked.' The servants in the arena below are saying, 'Silence. Let the bulls sleep.' "

The exhibition also delivers educational messages about where the mosaics came from and what's being done to preserve them. One of the four sections of the show, devoted to conservation, includes a touchable model of a cross-section of a Roman mosaic pavement. There are also samples of materials and tools used by Tunisian technicians who clean and conserve mosaics at their original sites.

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