Getty exhibit focuses on talents of Dutch master

Campus Times
October 15, 1999

photo by Isela Peña

The J. Paul Getty Museum is devoting an exhibition to sculptor Adriaen de Vries (1556-1626). "Adriaen de Vries: Imperial Sculptor" will be on display through January 2000. This 68 7/8" bronze piece is entitled "Triton," a Greek mythological character from the sea.

by Agke Grow
Staff Writer

He was a master of composition. He also was a virtuoso artist who produced brilliant bronze sculptures using a supremely difficult technique. He was compared to Michelangelo in his time. Yet few people have heard the name Adriaen de Vries.

The J. Paul Getty Museum is home to the last stop of de Vries' exhibit, which is also the only stop in the United States. Titled "Adriaen de Vries, Imperial Sculptor," the exhibit runs until January 9, 2000, and demonstrates the considerable talents of this Dutch master.

"This major exhibition examining de Vries' achievement is long overdue," said Peter Fusco, curator of European sculpture at the Getty.

Approximately 40 bronzes, as well as prints and drawings have been assembled for display. Some of the subjects in the collection include ancient mythical characters, scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and bold reinterpretations of existing marble statues.

Running concurrently to the de Vries exhibition is "Foundry to Finish: In the Studio of Adriaen de Vries," an exhibit that dissects and analyzes the direct loss wax casting technique that he used to create his bronze sculptures.

Each of the 13 phases to de Vries' method are explained with step-by-step models. Coupled with X-ray photographs of de Vries' works and videos demonstrating the actual casting process, the exhibit serves as a testament to the skill that de Vries possessed to regularly succeed using the direct casting technique.

Jane Bassett, co-curator of "From Foundry to Finish," said, "There is a record of a mistake in the pouring process, and the foundry acknowledged that it was at fault rather than de Vries, so the foundry had to compensate de Vries, who of course had to start over."

Peggy Fogelman, co-curator, said, "We can see from the finished product that de Vries must have worked with very skilled foundries."

The "From Foundry to Finish" exhibit also showed the impossibility of multiple copies of the bronzes using the direct casting technique.

The bronzes range from diminutive, highly detailed works to monumental compositions with intertwined figures so complex that de Vries was the only artist with the confidence and technical ability to create the sculptures in a single pour. Other artists assembled their compositions from separate castings.

De Vries' early works bear the earmarks of his Italian training, and are composed for viewing from multiple angles. The masterfully proportioned anatomy and careful attention to the most minute details present in his initial works were crafted to suit the taste of his patron, Rudolf II.

Later in his career, de Vries strayed from earlier conventions, and he abandoned the chiseled look for a softer, seemingly painted surface. His later pieces were also physically larger.

A prime example of this style is his last known work, "Hercules Pomarius." This large statue depicts Hercules after he has taken the golden apples from the garden of Esperides. His hands and face show no marks of the earlier attention to miniscule detail.

Hercules is also portrayed by de Vries as exhausted and battered after his struggle, an innovative departure and challenge to classical style.

De Vries was not hesitant to challenge convention. In 1623 when de Vries interpreted "Lacoön and His Sons," a work at that time often copied identically by artists, he created a new composition for the subjects, intertwining them in difficult positions. Incredibly, he created the bronze in a single pour.

"His new composition was his way of challenging the antique," said Fusco, "pitting himself against the best of the best.

"He also did it in a single pour, so he was also technically challenging the antique."

One of de Vries' masterpieces, "Juggling Man" is based on an ancient dancing faun statue done in marble. De Vries depicts a muscular man in the act of juggling two plates, his torso twisting as his foot works a bellows.

"The German phrase for juggling, 'Kunststücke machen' literally translates to 'making a work of art'," said Fusco, "and the bellows breathe life into the piece."

The bellows was also used in the 1500s and 1600s as a symbol of praise, and perhaps de Vries is using it to indicate that the juggler and artist deserve acclaim for their work.

De Vries (1556-1626) has remained a relative unknown in modern times, but in his day his masterful bronzes gave him a reputation as one of the finest artists in Europe. His work was so admired that illicit replicas of his bronzes were being circulated during de Vries' lifetime.

There are multiple reasons that de Vries' reputation has diminished. The nature of his direct lost wax casting technique only allowed for one finished bronze per wax model he created, resulting in a dramatically lower number of statues than possible with traditional mold casting methods. Additionally, the majority of de Vries' works make their permanent residence in Stockholm and Prague. Northern European cities are usually bypassed by art afficionados in favor of more southern locations such as Paris and Florence.

Compounding problems was the Thirty Years War. Invading Swedish troops looted Prague in 1648, and Denmark in 1659. De Vries' works were brought back to Sweden, removing the bronzes from their original contexts.

Although only recently studied extensively, it has become clear de Vries deserves to be considered one of the greatest sculptors of all time. His technical ability, coupled with his keen sense of space and superb compositional skill give his bronzes a quality that can be sensed even by the most casual museum -goer.

"De Vries accomplished for bronze sculpture what Gianlorenzo Bernini, the greatest sculptor of the Baroque period, would later accomplish for marble," said Fusco. "The exhibition will establish the importance of de Vries' place in the history of art."

The Getty Museum can be reached from the University of La Verne by taking the 10 freeway west to the 405 north and exiting on Getty Center Drive. Admission is free, and parking is $5. Call (310) 440-7300 to reserve parking.