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A skull session over a statue

How to present the figure at Getty Villa: with or without a head? It's a crucial but not unusual issue for restorers.

August 10, 2008|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

ON A recent sunny Saturday, while most Southern Californians were deployed somewhere enjoying a weekend hiatus, 20 art historians, conservators and museum officials shifted in their chairs around a long, U-shaped table in an air-conditioned conference room at the Getty Villa in Malibu, theorizing, listening and pondering out loud whose head to put on a headless 1,800-year-old Roman statue.

The result of their scholarly exchanges and deliberations would determine whether the future identity of the monumental white marble semi-nude, 2nd century male being reassembled in the Getty's workshop would be the Roman god Bacchus or the real-life boy lover of the Emperor Hadrian, known as Antinuous, or the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great.

Imagine such a group in future millenniums trying to decide whether a headless torso dating from 20th century America was originally a likeness of Elvis Presley, Truman Capote or Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Such challenges have faced collectors and curators of classical antiquity since Roman statuary began being unearthed by archaeologists in the 17th century, often missing heads and limbs and conclusive identities. The decisions made by museums through the years regarding how best to present and display these precious remains of the Greek and Roman past have reflected changing attitudes toward conservation and its purposes, aligned with improved methods and techniques.

The Saturday workshop convened by the Getty's Antiquities Conservation Department offered a case study in the current state of the rarefied craft. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that conservation became a profession and the custom of restoring damaged statues by whatever means was supplanted by the desire to display them closer to the state in which they were found.

"We undertook this because of our interest in the history of restoration," said Jerry Podany, the head of antiquities conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum since 1985. "This piece has been apart and put back together several times."

He spoke from a podium at one end of the table, addressing his Getty colleagues, along with a delegation from Germany's Dresden State Museum, which owns the statue.

"How comfortable are we, after all these restorations, to show a statue without a head?" Jens Daehner, the German-born assistant curator of antiquities at the Getty, asked during his own formal remarks that reviewed the statue's various incarnations since its first known display in Rome in 1704, when it carried an ancient female head (not original to it), probably a likeness of Athena but restored with a helmet so as to match an image of Alexander the Great seen on Greek coins. Though this sounds contrived by today's standards of archaeology, during the Baroque era a preference for complete sculptures allowed and encouraged such improvisation.

After the statue was removed from Italy in 1733 by a Saxon prince and brought to Dresden, it was modified again to include a fig leaf and a spear, still identified as Alexander. Then in 1804, according to a contemporary catalog of the museum's collection, it became Bacchus (Dionysus to the Greeks), a result of prevailing notions about its body type and drapery style, but retained the previous head and helmet associated with Alexander -- while losing the earlier restored right arm along with the fig leaf and spear.

Changing parts

What Podany referred to as "the unrecognized power of the restorer" was demonstrated when, during the tenure of the sculptor Emil Cauer the Elder as a restorer in the Dresden antiquities collection, the statue became "Antinuous in the guise of Bacchus," with a new head made of plaster and a new plaster right arm attached.

Then, in 1894, a new director of the museum replaced Cauer's Antinuous head with a plaster cast of another Antinuous on display in the British Museum. The right arm was again removed, and this was the state of the statue when it was placed in storage during the Dresden museum's closure due to World War II. It was not damaged during the bombing of Dresden but in June 1945 was shipped to Moscow along with the rest of the collection, regarded as the spoils of war.

By the time it was returned to Dresden by train in 1958, the statue had suffered extensive damage in transit and had broken into 158 pieces. It remained out of sight, stored in four wooden crates until those crates were air-freighted to the Getty in November.

In his remarks, Daehner mentioned the "high, wide chest" to be a signifier of Antinuous, yet the absence of long hair on the shoulders pointed again to the god of wine. "I am convinced we are dealing with a statue of Dionysus," the curator said. He also noted that a piece of paper plugged into a plastered hole turned out to be a page from a book published in 1894, but this detail did not aid the investigation.

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