Off-Ramp's Marc Haefele reviews Roman Mosaics Across the Empire, at the Getty Villa through mid–September 12.
The current show of Roman Imperial mosaics at the Getty Villa is strong, not spectacular. Some of it has been seen before, here and at LACMA. But what makes this show more than just "worth seeing" is the artful, even revelatory arrangement of objects by curator Alexis Belis. It's the how and why behind these ancient artworks.
There's certainly no “Alexander of the House of the Faun,” that stupendous battle scene now on the wall of the National Museum in Naples. But what is here is "yuuuuge," as they say these days. The biggest piece weighs eight tons — and it’s only part of the original, which, if it were all laid down, would fracture the museum floor. The show demonstrates the spread of the mosaic all over the Roman Empire and how intricate a part of life it became during those imperial centuries.
But it also does the opposite, showing how by 300 AD or so, rogue outside influences were sending tendrils into the practice of classical art, turning it into something else, representing stylized ideas and beliefs, rather than realities. Although the subjects generally remained classical figures, you sense a distant but perceptible reach toward what we now think of as medieval art.
The showier virtues of the great mosaics of the Republic and early Empire were eventually mitigated by the organizing principles of less artistically advanced folk. Their perceptions seemed to intrude into Italian practice by the 4th century. The bear-hunt mosaic from Baeae, near Naples, seems twilight Roman Imperial work. The old artifices and standards of figurative representation, the intricate detail and overwhelming perspectives of the great Pompeiian panoramas, are by now diluted. So are some of the pieces from what is now the South of France. The subjects are Greco-Roman myths but the artistic perceptions include geometric motifs strongly suggesting the art of outlier societies, which were also strongly influencing the twilit empire’s social and political culture.
Jean Louis Robert, the little mayor of the French village of Villelure, visited the show opening, complete with his red-white-and blue ceremonial sash. He said he was extremely proud of his history-rich little town and its major contributions to the show. These included some of the most vivid story-pictures on display, including a singular piece portraying two legendary boxers from Vergil’s “Aeneid.”
But the great accomplishment of the show is to flaunt the central cultural role of the art form itself. Mosaics go back more than 3,000 years, about as far as tapestry and fresco remnants. They are another Bronze age invention enhancing daily life. It seems that as soon as mankind invented walled and roofed dwellings, men and woman wanted to cover the walls and floors of their homes with beautiful pictures of their favorite stories.
Somehow, that idea of making pictures from little tiles of glass and stone evolved for 3,400 years all the way down to our local mid-20th-Century Home Savings mosaics of SoCal artist and master mosaicist Millard Sheets.
The Getty show also stresses how much classical mosaic art is probably still out there, undiscovered. And how important and sometimes difficult it is to conserve and even to preserve these great ancient works, which have the unfortunate habit of turning up in some of the world’s most troubled spots, like Libya and Syria.
Despite that, mosaics have endured far better than any other form of ancient representational art. Only mosaics are literally set in stone.
(This story has been edited to correct the misidentification of Mayor Robert, his town, and its mosaic.)