Art is a visual language that speaks to us like a book. We learn the visual cues to understand what the ideological language is saying, whether the image is conveying historical shifts or political and military prowess.
This is exactly the case with the current exhibit of 2,000 year-old Roman busts of emperors, patricians and senators on loan from the Capitoline Museum in Rome to the Fred Jones Junior Museum of Art (FJJMA) at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Immortales is a once-in-a-lifetime exposition, as most of the sculptures have never left the Roman Capitoline Museum before coming to Oklahoma. Due to renovations, these effigies have found a welcoming, temporary home in Norman.
Of the 40 sculptures loaned to OU, exhibition curator Francesca Giani chose 20 of the most compelling and famous busts that chronologically track the passage of triumph and turmoil within the Roman Empire from the 1st century BCE through the 5th century CE. Giani employed three principles for the exhibit design: human presence, images as ideological intent and the history of an empire.
On the surface, she wanted visitors to experience each bust’s humanesque persona. She positioned the figures at eye level, where the public can walk among and around them at a 360 degree-angle. She noted, “The human presence [of the busts] is very important to me because it’s the only visual testament we have of these historical figures.”
The FJJMA arrangement greatly contrasts with the Capitoline’s. In Rome, they line the walls on two-tiered shelves. The sculptures aren’t at eye level, and the backs of the heads are never seen. The Capitoline Museum is breathtaking, but visitors don’t fully experience the sculptures as they do at the FJJMA exhibit. Giani has created a truly dynamic experience through the positioning of pieces in this exhibit and has set the stage for Immortales to provide a deeper narrative.
Giani observes, “We don’t really know what these individuals looked like, only what they wanted to look like.” She referenced Alexander Severus and the colossal head of Honorius to highlight the power of images as ideological intent, as well as historical and philosophical transition.
In Severus’ effigy, one can see psychological turmoil, which begins an artistic shift from classical realism to late Antique art. Also in his sculpture, Severus has a short beard and hair, signifying military prowess, although this was likely exaggerated as a way of compensating for his lack of authority and military strength. He was assassinated by the military at the age of 26.
Honorius’ bust tells a different story.
In comparison to the other sculptures, Honorius is dull and distant. His eyes are over-exaggerated. His hair is flat and without detail. You can only see an image of power, not an emperor. In fact, Giani noted, “We think it might be Honorius, but the lack of detail makes it harder to recognize him.” According to the curator, monotheism contributed to the shift from realism to late Antique art.
Late Antique art no longer valued the beauty and movement of the human form. It began addressing mostly spirituality. This new artistic style is rigid and without the feeling of human presence. Despite the stylization shift, these statues still tell a story.
Be sure to take time to view this masterful, impressive exhibition.
Immortales was made possible by Enel Green Power North America, an Italian-based company dedicated to international, renewable-source energy. Enel has a strong presence in Oklahoma, owning and operating four wind farms with two more sites under construction.
Immortales will be showing at the FJJMA until February 14, 2016. More information about the exhibition is available on the museum’s website at www.ou.edu/fjjma. The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is located on the corner of Elm Avenue and Boyd Street on OU’s Norman campus.
Photos: Amanda O’Neal