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Review: 'Sicily' at Getty Villa looms larger than life

The new antiquities exhibition at the Getty Villa is an impressive overview of a flourishing civilization, with three major sculptures a must-see.

April 10, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • A gold offering dish with acorn pattern from 325-275 BC.
A gold offering dish with acorn pattern from 325-275 BC. (J. Paul Getty Museum )

There are at least three great reasons to see "Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome," the newly opened antiquities exhibition at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. A major sculpture anchors each of the show's three rooms, and together they tell an accelerating story of artistic and social power on the ancient Mediterranean island.

Chronologically, the first is a straightforward male torso, his finely chiseled marble body quietly brimming with latent energy. Second comes a preening charioteer, physically just larger than life but expressively very much so. And third is a depiction of a minor god with major fertility on his mind, his powerful physicality an embodiment of the contortions of carnal lust, both corporeal and psychological.

"Sicily" exhibition: In the April 10 Calendar section, a review of the Getty Villa's "Sicily" exhibition misspelled the name of the artist Kimon as Kiron. —

The torso — a fragment of a kouros (or standing nude youth), probably made for a funerary monument around 500-480 BC — is a fine example of its kind. Even with legs cut off at the thigh and without any arms, never mind the missing head, the emphatically frontal, gracefully proportioned body seems poised to move, its skin taut over firm musculature.

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This figure bristles with the potential for imminent action, unlike the everlasting rigidity of ancient Egyptian sculpture from which the kouros format probably derives. In statuary meant to adorn a dead man's tomb, that potential is an oddly comforting development.

The brilliant sculpture of a charioteer, made less than 25 years later, is the exhibition's knockout work. He's also missing arms (and feet), but you don't need full limbs to see what a beaming, gallant showoff the unknown artist has created.

The figure stands with his body slightly twisting in space, as if turning to wave. Like any victor acknowledging the applauding throng from the podium, it's a gesture you've seen on such figures as Ryan Lochte at London's Olympics and the latest starlet negotiating the Oscars or Emmys red carpet. His weight is carried on the pivoting left leg, jaunty hip thrust out to receive his hand and grinning head turned slightly to the side.

The athlete's proud demeanor is not surprising. In mainland Greece and its colonial outposts, the pounding four-horse chariot race was the heart-stopping culmination of extravagant athletic games. The winner deserved the accolades and prizes showered on him for prevailing, such as an imposing black-figure vase decorated with a charioteer and rearing horses installed nearby. Better than a medal, the functional trophy would have been one of dozens of jars filled with olive oil harvested from Athena's sacred grove.

The "Mozia Charioteer," named after the little island along the western coast of Sicily where it was found, is an even bigger prize. The bodily naturalism of its complex pose pulls a viewer all the way around the figure for a 360-degree view. That's one reason why it is regarded among the finest ancient Greek sculptures in the round to have survived.

Incidentally, I highly recommend shifting your own body into position to mirror the sculpture's pose as you're examining it. You might feel foolish doing it in the gallery, but you'll walk away having learned a lot.

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One thing you'll discover is the jaw-dropping delicacy of the carving. The skin of the kouros torso reveals the musculature moving underneath, but the charioteer's sculptor added yet another layer — a pleated tunic, which miraculously reveals the taut skin beneath and finally the underlying bodily structure. It's as if you've been given X-ray vision.

The layered illusion multiplies at the back, where the pleated cloth pulls gently across the turning torso. At the hip it subtly bunches beneath the athlete's firm fingertips (although the charioteer's arms are missing, his hand remains attached to the torso.). Small moments such as these are marvels of what could be called kinesthetic vision, in which a perception of slight but revealing physical strain appears.

Physical strain explodes in the third sculpture — a 5-1/2 foot figure of fertility god Priapos, who would stand at least 6 feet tall if his body were not contorted into a nearly impossible double-S curve. (Try to ape that pose in the gallery, and you might fall over.) The severity of the contortion suggests psychological as much as physical distortion.

Given the deity's outrageous sexual exhibitionism, that's no surprise.

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