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Doryphoros returns

Back from London

München, 08/17/2015

After his four-month stay at the British Museum, LMU’s Spear-Bearer is back at his post in the University’s Main Building – elegant as ever, but with an unmistakably cosmopolitan air, having made quite an impression on his trip abroad.


Source: British Museum

No, Doryphoros was not on vacation in London. He was an honored guest among a distinguished company in a headline exhibition at the British Museum. The show, entitled “Defining Beauty”, was devoted to representations of the human body in the art of Classical Greece.

Doryphoros occupied a prominent position in the very first section of the exhibition, and couldn’t fail to make an impression on visitors – each of whom who had paid £16.50 for the privilege of viewing him close up.

It was his first trip abroad, and the experience has no doubt changed his perception of himself. Normally he stands in the midst of throngs of people hurrying past on urgent business without even glancing at him. But the crowds in London stopped for minutes at a time to contemplate his form, from the top of his eyeless head to the tips of his toes. Yet his unaccustomed eminence in a select company shouldn’t really have surprised us. After all, the original model for this bronze Doryphoros is attributed to Polykleitos (fl. 440 BC), one of the most admired sculptors of the Classical Age, and the artist himself is reputed to have regarded it as a paradigmatic example of poise and balanced proportions. In his efforts to faithfully recreate in bronze the form of the lost original, in the early 20th century the Munich sculptor Georg Römer was guided by no less than three surviving, fragmentary Roman copies of Polykleitos’ great work. LMU’s Spear-Bearer at LMU then became the centerpiece of a memorial for former students and staff of the University who had lost their lives during World War I. Damage inflicted by a bombing raid in the Second World War subsequently robbed him of his eyes and his eponymous weapon.

Artistic quality now recognized
The Spear-Bearer’s stay in London also brought about a sea-change in its status as a work of art. In the exhibition the label on its pedestal stated: “Measured Beauty: … Claiming that perfection ‘comes about little by little through many numbers,’ the artist Polykleitos constructed his Doryphoros, or spear-bearer, according to a precise set of ratios. … Bronze reconstruction of about 1920 by Georg Römer, after a lost Greek bronze of about 440-430 BC. On loan from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich.”

In addition to Doryphoros, the show presented 120 other pieces, which were displayed in subdued light in spaces whose walls were hung with heavy drapes. The exhibits, most of which were drawn from the British Museum’s own collections, included gleaming marble sculptures and bronzes, terra-cotta figures and vases as well as art from prehistoric times.. Among the “extraordinary loans from other world-class collections” on display were the Wounded Amazon, a marble statue from the Musei Capitolini in Rome and the bronze figure of an athlete found in Croatia. The Spear-Bearer’s immediate neighbors in the very first room were a Discus-Thrower (diskobolos) and the torso of a figure of the river-god Ilissos, both from the holdings of the British Museum.

Rolf Michael Schneider, Professor of Classical Archaeology at LMU, was instrumental not only in arranging the dispatch of the Spear-Bearer to London on temporary loan, but also in mediating the inclusion of another Doryphoros from a collection in Warsaw in a second exhibition in Milan. He was delighted to find the Munich Spear-Bearer displayed in such an “strikingly prominent” position in the London show: “Its placement represented a resounding acknowledgement of the special significance of the piece in the context of the exhibition’s theme. Our modern conception of the beauty of Classical Greek sculpture is necessarily based largely on later Roman copies. And LMU’s bronze reconstruction of one lost Greek original gives a paradigmatic example of this reception.”

The inclusion of LMU’s Spear-Bearer in the exhibition has certainly enlivened discussions of the reception of Greek sculpture among art historians, Schneider says. “The idea that one could recreate Polykleitos’ bronze original − which was greatly admired by contemporaries but was probably melted down later on – is of course an illusion. But what such an attempted can do is to spark a constructive debate on the question of how we can reimagine the lost Greek originals and recapture their specific aesthetic qualities.”

The much appreciated Spear-Bearer has now returned from its highly successful trip to London. Despite the attractions of dramatic spotlighting and rapt attention from interested spectators, residence in a windowless exhibition hall can still have its longueurs. Only in his familiar, bright and airy position on the first floor of LMU’s Main Building does Doryphoros really feel at home.