Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Boxer

When I got back to New York I was presented with a smorgasbord of exhibitions at 6 museums that interested me and I was not sure if I would make it to all of them, but in the end I did.  As is usually the case some that I thought I would love were a disappointment, and others that I was not that interested in turned out to be marvelous.  At the Metropolitan Museum you can pick up a sheet which is called, “Now on View” which had 26 different exhibitions listed.  That did not include the wonderful reinstallation of the Old Master Galleries which I only walked through and I look forward to seeing them thoroughly at a future date.

Not all the exhibitions have a great deal of material.  In fact 2 of them only had one work of art.  These were lent from Italian institutions to celebrate “The Year of Italian Culture”.  One was a Velázquez of “Duke Francesco I d’Este,” 1638
 from the Galleria Estense, Modena.  It is a half-length portrait and the Met has better works by Velazquez in its permanent Collection.  The other, however, was amazing and I found it absolutely captivating.  The title of the exhibition is, “The Boxer an Ancient Masterpiece”  but it is always referred to as “Boxer at Rest”.  This life size bronze figure is sitting on a rock, which is not original,  It dates between the 4th and 2nd century B.C., the Helenistic period, and is in extremely good condition.  It has been lent by the Republic of Italy and comes form the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.  What I know about ancient art would fill a thimble but I remember very clearly, even from high school, that this period for art was prime time and some of the greatest surviving objects come from it.  Never has it been so obvious as with our “Boxer at Rest”.  One of the few names that I remember from this period is Lysippos and though it is purely conjecture this bronze has been attributed to him by some.

An eye witness to its excavation in 1885, the archeologist Rodolfo Lanciani said in part “…In my long carreer…I have experienced surprise after surprise… but I have never felt such an extraordinary impression as the one created by the sight of this magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete…”  That is what I felt as I came through the main entrance of the Greek & Roman department at the Metropolitan Museum.  There he sits and you worry that you may be invading his space.  A colleague of mine commented that “it was a privilege to be able to see the boxer here” I usually find this kind of comment exaggerated but I found myself in total agreement.

The bronze was excavated on the south slope of the Quirinal Hill in Rome near the Baths of Constantine.  In the brochure for the exhibition it says that something catches his eye because he is turned to right.  In the show he happens to be staring at the didactic panel and practically takes the viewer to it!  I found it mesmerizing. I felt as if he would rise at any moment.

The figure is so very realistic, totally nude with all his parts exposed and intact.  He has clearly been punched in his nose and on his ears often and drops of blood from his face have landed on his thigh where they are represented by bits of copper. He is still wearing his boxing gloves with strips of leather attached to a ring around the knuckles and fitted with woolen padding which had the capacity to be lethal.  He is clearly resting after a very tiring round against his opponent and getting ready for he next round.  At this time it was still possible for men of some standing to be boxers.  In Roman times it was only the gladiators who fought.

As I was looking for “The Boxer at the Met” on the internet, I came across the Met’s painting of a boxer by John Hopner (1758-1810).  This fellow looks like he was never even spanked much less punched and is totally idealized, hardly the reaction we have to the ancient bronze.

"Richard Humphrys, the Boxer" by John Hopner (1758-1810)

Unfortunately, the loan of the Boxer at Rest is for only 6 weeks and is scheduled to leave the Met on July 15.

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