This March, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) debuted its new exhibition “Figures from the Fire,” displaying priceless bronzework pieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
“[The exhibition] brings together approximately 20 ancient Greek and Roman bronzes from the Wadsworth Atheneum and puts them in conversation with a group of other artworks from the ancient world from Bowdoin’s own collection,” Co-Director of the BCMA Frank Goodyear said.
The bronze pieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum originate from the Morgan Collection, a collection of works purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan between 1904 and 1916. Anne Goodyear, also co-director of the museum, illuminates the peculiar attraction of these pieces rooted in the ancient world.
“I think there is an invitation to travel to another culture, to another period of time [and] to immerse ourselves in another reality,” Anne Goodyear said. “There’s this exciting opportunity to think about all the stories that objects carry with them as they move through time and occupy different contexts over the course of history.”
Associate Curator of Ancient Art at the Yale University Art Gallery Lisa Brody and Associate Professor of Classics James Higginbotham curated the exhibition.
They were invited to present the exhibition on Thursday, and the event attracted a substantial number of outside visitors to the museum. The pair unwrapped the murky and archaic history of the objects—a difficult feat since the objects were at times acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan through unofficial means.
“I think there are opportunities to teach from this…. [It might] be about the fact that these objects … come from dealers and therefore their theological context has been lost. How do you then interpret these objects without that archeological data?” attendee and Senior Curator at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art Linda Roth ’76 said.
“There was a kind of glory gained from such evasion of legitimate restrictions of exports,” Brody said.
The BCMA will be hosting “Figures from the Fire” from March 2023 until January 2024. The BCMA looks forward to students engaging with the exhibit’s pieces in their studies during the Spring and Fall semester.
“It’s one thing to see a bronze sculpture as a reproduction on a PowerPoint presentation, but it’s quite another thing to see it actually in person,” Frank Goodyear said. “To understand what this thing really looks like: its sense of size, its actual color.”
This semester, Higginbotham is weaving visits to the exhibition into his Classics courses, and the BCMA looks forward to upcoming collaborations with the Department of Art History.
The historical insight given by the exhibit is twofold—demonstrating both the art of the classical world and the art-collection culture of the late 19th century.
“I hope the [museumgoers] will enjoy seeing the [pieces], both for what they reveal about the Gilded Age collecting of Antiquities, and for what they reveal about bronze works of art from the Ancient Mediterranean,” Brody said.
The exhibition is also distinctive in its modest scale. Higginbotham explained that larger sized statues were often targeted during outbursts of vandalism or melted down to recycle the bronze material. Smaller private objects were more likely to stay intact across the centuries. Indeed, the remnant of a foot from a larger-than-life statue exhibited in “Figures from the Fire” attests to this.
“We’re so accustomed to seeing things at a bigger scale that your eye has to adjust to artworks that are smaller than what we typically encounter in museums,” Frank Goodyear said. “But I kind of love that, because I feel like there’s a lot of sophistication in those small designs and the exquisite craftsmanship that they are displaying.”
Brody highlighted how the exhibition is organized to invite intimate observation of the objects.
“I would encourage [getting] up close,” said Brody, “We purposely limited the number of [artifacts] in each case. They’re quite small, so they are best appreciated from a close vantage point.”
Despite the bronze objects’ antique origins, the BCMA looks forward to how the exhibition can educate and impact students today.
“One of the things that unites all of the collaborators in this project is the goal of planting a seed,” Anne Goodyear said.“[We want to make] these exceptional objects fully accessible to the next generation of leaders and to people who can be touched by [the pieces] in ways that we can’t even imagine.”