Faces from Ancient Rome

Bust of a Byzantine Emperor

I am still thinking of my visit to the Getty Villa yesterday. One thing the ancient Romans knew how to do was sculpt faces. In sculpture, in the images on coins, the goal was to create a recognizable image, even if it was uncomplimentary. And some of the later Roman emperors were nothing to look at. In a previous post, I showed the museum’s statue of Caligula, with his inverted triangle of a face radiating pure evil. I can’t imagine our current emperor—I mean president—accepting such uncomplimentary honesty.

Unidentified Poet or Philosopher

Take a look at this face. The original is unidentified, but the museum thinks he must be a poet or philosopher. In any case, he is old and he has the facial expression of a man who is constitutionally set in his ways. The lines on his face, the slight lopsidedness of his features, the sneer on his lips—this is a man beholden to nobody.

The Slave Boy Martial—Deceased

Finally there is a bust of the slave boy Martial, dead before his third birthday sometime in the second or third century AD. The boy must have been cherished by his owner, because he or she went to the trouble of commissioning this bust for a funerary monument.

Three faces—all very different—all very alive. Walking through the rooms of the Getty Villa, I was acutely conscious that these three individuals were real people. No attempt was made to idealize them. Some two thousand years ago, more or less, they walked the earth looking very much like the busts that commemorated them.


Outliers: Rick Bartow, Mad River Wiyot

Deer Spirit by Rick Bartow (1946-2016)

Today, Martine and I visited the Autry National Center, which was putting on a show of the late American Indian painter and sculptor, Rick Bartow, entitled “Things You Know But Cannot Explain.” I was enthralled by Bartow’s vision of people and the wild animals whose spirits have invaded them. A member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot Indians, Bartow  lived much of his life around Newport, Oregon.

The deer spirit illustrated above is typical of Bartow’s depiction of human verging on totemic animal. Another is the drawing that gave its name to the show:

“Things You Know But Cannot Explain”

Note the face seeming to emerge from the upper right behind the foreground figure, who appears to be paralyzed with fright. Much more traditional is the drawing of three hawks below.

“Three Hawks”

I may not have a drop of Native American blood in me, but I am always delighted to see creative depictions of animals I consider to be my own personal totems, among whom I include the coyote, the raven, and the bear. Because I live at the edge of the desert and Bartow lived in the wet forests of the north, he did not depict my other totems, the frog and the turtle, both of whom I associate with life-giving rain.

Some of Bartow’s most impressive works are his sculptures. Perhaps I will do another posting on those later on. They are usually formed of wood, nails, and various found objects.

At a time when much of the art work is ruled by abstract expressionist garbage, I find Rick Bartow to be rooted in an ancient tradition that manages to speak to me today.


Madame Vleughels

Edmé Bouchardon’s Bust of Madame Vleughels

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has been putting on an exhibit entitled Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment, which ends in a few days. I was enthralled by both his drawings and his sculptures, of which the above bust of Mme Vleughels is one of my favorites. Edmé Bouchardon (1698-1762) is not well known to most people, but thanks to the Getty, I have made another discovery.

His work that shows the same technical virtuosity of some of the great rococo painters, as in the ornately draped blouse worn by the young woman, yet retains an austere classicism in her facial features and shoulders. Below is one of his drawings:

Head of a Woman Wearing a Scarf

Here again we have a combination of simplicity and technical virtuosity, which seems to be a hallmark of Bouchardon’s style.

Visiting an art museum can be a thrilling experience. But you have to open your eyes and be willing to make comparisons.