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A Tale of Two Tassels - Raphael and Holbein in The National Gallery, London

March 3, 2017

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The One With Teeth - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

 

Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend an outrageous amount of time at the The Met. I actually worked there for a few years. I'd study whatever was in whichever gallery I happened to be in. I'd read about the collection. And sometimes I'd just stare at whatever was in front of me. And one day while working in the Greek and Roman galleries I happened to notice that one - and only one - of the statues had teeth. 

 

Once I happened upon the teeth of this one marble bust, it was difficult not to spend many subsequent hours looking for teeth on all the others. I found none. Eventually my search expanded to heads and busts at other museums as well. And at this point, years later, I’m fortunate to have visited quite a few museums in both Europe and North America and can state emphatically that I’ve never seen teeth carved quite like this, on any other sculpture, anywhere! It’s rare to see teeth attempted in stone. I have seen a few marble heads that hint at teeth;  but just barely. In Rome, where this came from, and which has probably 1,000+ similar examples of sculpted marble portraiture... I couldn’t find a single bust with lips so delicately parted and teeth so finely delineated. This head is a masterpiece of subtlety. Of course that's just my opinion... maybe your eyes tell you otherwise.

 

It’s not just the teeth either; every facet of this bust is uncommonly lifelike. The lips, the curvature of the musculature underlying the mouth, the utterly realistic roundness of the eyelids and the eyes themselves, and underlying shape of the eyeballs (best seen in profile); each snug in their non-existant skeletal sockets. Even the nostrils and underside of the nose are exquisitely rendered. Together these details combine to lend a lifelike realism which IMHO is very, very rare in this medium at this time. The sculptor is unknown, but whoever they were, they lavished extraordinary attention upon this head.

 

It’s believed to be a Roman copy (created in 50-ish AD) in marble, after an ancient Greek bronze (created in 450-ish BCE) by the celebrated sculptor Polykleitos. And while it’s all fine and well that they’ve identified it as a copy... it’s astonishing (to me) they haven’t acknowledged how MASTERFUL the carving is. If it is a faithful copy... and we’ll never know because the original Greek bronze is long-lost... it’s simply got to be a fantastic one which captured an uncanny level of detail considering it's made of stone. 

 

Anyway. I hadn’t seen it in a couple of years because I'd been living overseas but upon moving back to Manhattan went to visit it again. Since seeing it last I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to see dozens of Michelangelo and Bernini sculptures up close, so I wasn’t sure if this old head would stand up to my newfound scrutinous gaze; if I’d still like it quite as much, with a broader context to evaluate it against. But I like it more than ever! I still think it flirts with genius, and is something truly special - even though it’s completely unacknowledged by the museum. At least as best as I can tell.

 

The Met has it ‘tucked away in plain sight’ and nobody ever mentions it in their tours. The pedestal on which it stands is just about eye-level (for me anyway, and I’m 5’10”) so you’d never even KNOW it had teeth if you didn’t specifically look for them from beneath. It’s 'just' one of dozens of sculptures lining the walls in the (rather spectacular) hallway connecting the main hall to their Roman sculpture 'garden.'

 

When you stop and read about it there’s no information aside from, “Copy of work attributed to Polykleitos Date: ca. A.D. 41–54” No mention of the teeth or the geometrically and anatomically perfect features; or the skill necessary to create them in stone; or how rare it is that it’s got any teeth at all. As a guard, I turned at least 10 or 15 fellow-guards onto the only marble portrait bust in the entire collection with teeth. It seemed at the time like a nifty bit of Met trivia. But what it really is, is much more powerful. An utterly unappreciated work of genius.

 

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